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UN Human Rights Experts Say Countries Should Legalize Drugs To ‘Eliminate Profits From Illegal Trafficking’



Dozens of United Nations (UN) human rights experts are championing a less-punitive approach to global drug policies, urging member nations to focus less on punishment and criminalization and more on harm reduction and public health while specifically calling for “decriminalisation of drug use and related activities, and the responsible regulation of all drugs to eliminate profits from illegal trafficking, criminality and violence.”

“The ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in a range of serious human rights violations, as documented by a number of UN human rights experts over the years,” says the statement from UN special rapporteurs, experts and working groups. “We collectively urge Member States and all UN entities to put evidence and communities at the centre of drug policies, by shifting from punishment towards support, and invest in the full array of evidence-based health interventions for people who use drugs, ranging from prevention to harm reduction, treatment and aftercare, emphasizing the need for a voluntary basis and in full respect of human rights norms and standards.”

The statement is not a defense of drug use but instead an insistence that nations’ overzealous fight against substances has failed to address health problems while creating harms of its own.

“These widespread abuses have included compulsory drug detention in the name of ‘treatment’, over incarceration and related prison overcrowding, the ongoing use of the death penalty for drug offences, killings, enforced disappearances and the ongoing lack of, and unequal access to treatment, harm reduction and essential medicines,” it says.

“The international community must seek to address and reverse the damage brought about by decades of a global ‘war on drugs,’” it says. “We note that states of exception and the militarization of law enforcement in the context of the ‘war on drugs’ continue to facilitate the commission of multiple and serious human rights violations… [W]e collectively call for an end to the militarisation of drug policy, overincarceration and prison overcrowding, the use of the death penalty for drug offences, and policies that disproportionately impact marginalised groups.”

The UN experts’ statement also highlights a number of other UN agency reports, positions, resolutions and other actions in favor of prioritizing prevention and harm reduction over punishment.

It points, for example, to what it calls a “landmark report” published earlier this week by the UN special rapporteur on human rights that encourages nations to abandon the criminal war on drugs and instead adopt harm-reduction policies—such as decriminalization, supervised consumption sites, drug checking and widespread availability of overdose reversal drugs like naloxone—while also moving toward “alternative regulatory approaches” for currently controlled substances.

That report “notes that over-criminalisation, stigmatisation and discrimination linked to drug use represent structural barriers leading to poorer health outcomes.”

While not among the signatories of the new statement, Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, also posted on social media on Wednesday that the “war on drugs failed,” noting that drug use disorders have risen while enrollment in treatment has dropped over time.

Much of the advocacy by UN experts references World Drug Day, or the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, which was on Wednesday.

“For years, UN human rights experts have documented the devastating human rights and health impacts of drug policies over reliance on punishment, criminalisation and militarisation,” the human rights experts’ statement says. “On World Drugs Day 2024, we call for transformative change in drug policy, by shifting from punishment towards harm reduction.”

The statement also highlights the use of the term “harm reduction” in a recent resolution adopted by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, noting it was “the very first time” the phrase was used in such a resolution. “Endorsing a harm reduction approach to drug use is all the more important as one in eight people who inject drugs are currently living with HIV, representing 1.6 million people,” the statement says.

The four-page document also points to a 2023 report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights underscoring the human rights consequences of drug law enforcement.

UN human rights experts have advocated for similar changes on past World Drugs Days.

“As we did in 2022 and 2023,” the UN experts continue, “we call on Member States and all UN entities to ground their drug policy responses in international human rights law and standards, including the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy and the UN System Common Position on drugs.”

Advocacy at the UN comes as international bodies and national governments across the world adjust their approaches to drug control and regulation.

Late last year, for example, 19 Latin American and Caribbean nations issued a joint statement acknowledging the need to rethink the global war on drugs and instead focus on “life, peace and development” within the region.

A report last year from an international coalition of advocacy groups, meanwhile, also found that global drug prohibition has fueled environmental destruction in some of the world’s most critical ecosystems, undermining efforts to address the climate crisis.

And a year ago, UN special rapporteurs in a separate report said that “the ‘war on drugs’ may be understood to a significant extent as a war on people.”

“Its impact has been greatest on those who live in poverty,” they said, “and it frequently overlaps with discrimination directed at marginalised groups, minorities and Indigenous Peoples.”

In 2019, the UN Chief Executives Board (CEB), 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—namely decriminalization.

Also this week, UNODC released its 2024 World Drug Report. Among its findings, it says marijuana legalization in the U.S. and Canada may have helped to shrink the size of illicit markets, while at the same time driving significant drops in the number of people arrested for cannabis offenses. It also notes the emergence of what it calls a “psychedelic renaissance.”

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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