A UN human rights report calls for a shift from punitive measures to address the global drugs problem to the use of policies grounded in human rights and public health, arguing that disproportionate use of criminal penalties is causing harm.
The report urges States to develop effective drug policies, including by considering decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use. “If effectively designed and implemented, decriminalisation can be a powerful instrument to ensure that the rights of people who use drugs are protected”, it says.
“Laws, policies and practices deployed to address drug use must not end up exacerbating human suffering. The drugs problem remains very concerning, but treating people who use drugs as criminals is not the solution”, said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk.
“States should move away from the current dominant focus on prohibition, repression and punishment, and instead embrace laws, policies and practices anchored in human rights and aimed at harm reduction.”
The UN Human Rights Office report, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, finds that disproportionate use of criminal penalties discourages people who use drugs from seeking treatment and feeds stigma and social exclusion. According to the latest available statistics from the 2023 World Drug Report, people who use drugs are disproportionately affected by blood-borne viruses, nearly 660,000 die of drugs-related causes each year, and 10 per cent of all new HIV infections globally in 2021 were among people who injected drugs.
The ill effects of these policies are profound and far-reaching, the report finds. Militarisation of law enforcement in the so-called war on drugs contributes to severe human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings. And disproportionate use of criminal penalties contributes significantly to prison overcrowding.
The report highlights that the effects of these policies are most severe for people of African descent, women, indigenous peoples and young people from poor backgrounds.
“Today’s drugs policies have the greatest impact on those who are poorest and most vulnerable”, Turk emphasised.
There has also been an increase in the use of the death penalty for drug-related convictions worldwide, contrary to international human rights law norms and standards. The report states that the recorded number of people executed for drug-related offences more than doubled in 2022 compared to 2021, amounting to 37 per cent of all executions recorded globally.
“The current overemphasis on coercion and control to counter drugs is fanning an increase in human rights violations despite mounting evidence that decades of criminalisation and the so-called war on drugs have neither protected the welfare of people nor deterred drug-related crime”, Türk said.
The report shows that an increasing number of countries across regions are adopting policies and practices that decriminalise drug use and treat drug usage as a public health and human rights issue, and are applying evidence-based, gender-sensitive and harm reduction approaches. The High Commissioner called on States to build on this positive trend.
* Read: Human rights challenges in addressing and countering all aspects of the world drug problem here.