Addicted to punishment

The disproportionality of drug laws in Latin America
January 2013

addicted-punishmentIn Latin America, trafficking cocaine so it can be sold to someone who wants to use it is more serious than raping a woman or deliberately killing your neighbor. While it may seem incredible, that is the conclusion of a rigorous study of the evolution of criminal legislation in the region, which shows that countries’ judicial systems mete out harsher penalties for trafficking even modest amounts of drugs than for acts as heinous as sexual assault or murder.

application-pdfDownload the report (PDF)

How have we reached such an unjust and irrational point? In recent decades, especially the 1980s, Latin American countries, influenced by an international prohibitionist model, fell – ironically – into what we might metaphorically call an addiction to punishment.

Addiction creates the need to consume more and more drugs, which have less and less effect; ultimately, the problematic user simply consumes drugs to avoid withdrawal. Drug legislation in Latin America seems to have followed a similar path. Countries have an ever-growing need to add crimes and increase the penalties for drug trafficking, supposedly to control an expanding illegal market, while this increasingly punitive approach has less and less effect on decreasing the supply and use of illegal drugs.

This study analyzes the proportionality of drug related crimes in seven Latin American countries through the study of the evolution of their criminal legislations from 1950 until 2012. The study suggests the existence of a regional tendency to maximize the use of criminal law for combating this type of conducts. This is reflected in: i) the gradual increase in the number of drug-related conducts described as criminal, ii) the exponential growth of the penalties with which those conducts are punished and iii) the incomprehensible tendency of punishing with more severity the drug-related crimes rather than those more evidently severe such as homicide, rape and aggravated robbery. Those upward trends indicate that the Latin American States have become addicted to punishment because of their frequent and empirically groundless increasing of the punitive dose, regardless of its constantly decreasing benefits.

Addicted to punishment is part of a series of studies carried out by the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (CEDD) that critically analyze the application of the proportionality principle in relation with drug crimes. The studies find that the punishments imposed and the punitive treatment of the offenders are disproportional, often generating more damages than benefits.