A new United Nations report highlights the many human rights concerns raised by the war on drugs, urging member states to shift from punitive drug-control policies to an approach rooted in public health. Dealing with drugs as a criminal problem, the report says, is causing further harm.
“Laws, policies and practices deployed to address drug use must not end up exacerbating human suffering,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said in a statement Wednesday. “The drugs problem remains very concerning, but treating people who use drugs as criminals is not the solution.”
“States should move away from the current dominant focus on prohibition, repression and punishment,” Türk continued, “and instead embrace laws, policies and practices anchored in human rights and aimed at harm reduction.”
Criminal penalties and social stigma also discourage people from seeking treatment, the 21-page report from the UN Human Rights Office says. It emphasizes that the consequences of harsh 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 impac on those who are poorest and most vulnerable,” Türk said.
UN report urges States to end overreliance on punitive measures to address drugs problem & shift to interventions grounded in #humanrights & public health. It is essential that laws, policies & practices deployed to address drug use must not exacerbate human suffering -…
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) September 20, 2023
In 2019, the UN Chief Executives Board, which represents 31 UN agencies including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), adopted a position stipulating that member states should pursue science-based, health-oriented drug policies “including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use.”
Nearly 660,000 people die of drug-related causes each year, according to the new UN report—with about a sixth of those in the U.S. In addition to overdose risks, people who inject drugs are also 35 times more likely to acquire HIV than the rest of the adult population, it says. In 2021, 10 percent of all new HIV infections globally were among people who inject drugs.
But trying to tackle those problems through law enforcement isn’t working, the UN says, and it’s putting vulnerable people at even higher risk. “Such punitive drug policies have major human rights impacts on people who use drugs,” the report says, “including on their rights to liberty, privacy, health and well-being and other economic and social rights.”
“The main areas of concern when addressing and countering the world drug problem,” it specifies, “are the lack of and unequal access to treatment and harm reduction, the ‘war on drugs’ and militarization of drug control, overincarceration and prison overcrowding, the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses, and the disproportionate impact of punitive drug policies on youth, people of African descent, Indigenous peoples and women.”
The report concludes with recommendations to the international community. Among them, it says states should recognize harm reduction as the central element of the right to health, abolish the death penalty for drug-related offenses, acknowledge the role of disproportionate drug laws in global mass incarceration and “address the underlying socioeconomic factors that increase the risks of using drugs or that lead to engaging in the drug trade.”
With drug use on the rise globally—more than 296 million people on the planet used substances in 2021, an increase of 23 percent over the previous decade, the UN says—the report urges broader and more equitable access to treatment services.
“The provision of accessible drug treatment services is essential to realize the right to health of people who use drugs,” it says. “However, the demand for treating drug-related disorders remains largely unmet. Only one in five people suffering from drug-related disorders was in treatment for drug use in 2021, with widening disparities to access to treatment across regions.”
It also noted “a reduction in support to medium to long-term treatment programmes and social reintegration services, including employment, affordable housing and childcare services, which are key to ensure sustained, long-term recovery and social reintegration, including for individuals formerly incarcerated.”
But the UN authors warned against making treatment mandatory. “Submissions reported the continued existence of non-voluntary, compulsory or coercive treatment,” they wrote, “which poses serious challenges to human dignity and rights and is contrary to international norms and standards.”
The vigor with which some nations have pursued drug-related offenses has caused serious human rights concerns, the report says, especially as law enforcement take a more aggressive, military-style approach.
“Punitive approaches to drug control, which in some countries include the militarization of law enforcement responses to counter the drug problem, have involved rapid escalation in the use of lethal force,” it says, “and continue to facilitate the commission of multiple and serious human rights violations, from unnecessary and disproportionate use of force to extrajudicial killings, with related impunity.”
More than 130 nongovernmental organizations have signed a statement urging the international community to act on the new report’s findings.
“With this report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is the first UN agency to call for the responsible regulation of drugs as a pragmatic measure to protect public health and the human rights of all,” it says. “This comes at a time when over 250 million people already live in jurisdictions where legal cannabis markets are a reality, and countries such as Colombia and Germany are announcing similar plans. In addition, Bolivia has just triggered the process to review the international scheduling and control of the coca leaf, as it was subject to international control in 1961 on the basis of outdated and racist prejudices.”
Latin American and Caribbean countries also recently agreed to rethink the drug war. Under the current, punitive approach, “the expected results have not been obtained when combating the world drug problem, leaving in many cases the underlying problems to be solved and exploiting and exacerbating vulnerabilities of our territories and societies,” according to a joint statement issued by 19 nations.
The new UN report does identify some “positive developments,” such as the growing agreement among international bodies that “any discussion on drug policy must take into account States’ human rights obligations, and that human rights mechanisms should monitor human rights implications of drug policies.” It also notes the earlier 31-agency agreement that drugs should be decriminalized: “The United Nations system common position on drug-related matters calls for the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use.”
“If effectively designed and implemented, decriminalization can be a powerful instrument to ensure that the rights of people who use drugs are protected,” it says. “For example, in Portugal, the implementation of integrated responses within a decriminalization framework of personal consumption and possession of drugs has led to lower drug use levels, decreased drug use among adolescents, and a significant reduction of HIV infections among injecting drug users and of overdoses.”
UN experts and global leaders echoed those points in June as part of World Drug Day.
“The ‘war on drugs’ may be understood to a significant extent as a war on people,” a UN coalition of “special rapporteurs” said in a statement at the time. “Its impact has been greatest on those who live in poverty, and it frequently overlaps with discrimination directed at marginalised groups, minorities and Indigenous Peoples.”
Members made clear they believe the international community should depart from criminalization and embrace “life-saving harm reduction interventions, which are essential for the protection of the right to health of people who use drugs.
Separately, UN Secretary General António Guterres, who oversaw the enactment of Portugal’s national drug decriminalization law when he served as the country’s prime minister, criticized the discrimination leveled at people who use drugs.
“Drug users are doubly victimized: first by the harmful effects of the drugs themselves, and second by the discrimination they face,” he tweeted in June. “As we mark #WorldDrugDay, we continue our work to end drug abuse, illicit trafficking & stigma endured by drug users worldwide.”