UN Backflips on Drug Policy

A landmark report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) exposes the unintended consequences of drug prohibition.

The report pushes for a major rethink of global drug policy by Member States, advocating for a public health and human rights approach rather than criminalisation. 

After years of endorsing drug prohibition, could this groundbreaking UN report be a harbinger of change in global drug policy?

The report ‘Human Rights Challenges in Addressing and Countering all Aspects of the World Drug Problem was presented to the 54th session of the Human Rights Council in September 2023. 

This controversial report marks a dramatic shift in the United Nations 50 year “war on drugs”. 

Is this the beginning of the end of the “war on drug users”?

A Shift in Perspective 

The recommendations stand in stark contrast to the prohibitionist approach that has defined drug policy for decades. After promoting the “war on drugs” in pursuit of a “drug free world,” the UN has finally acknowledged the unacceptable cost of pursuing the ideal of abstinence. 

The three UN drug treaties starting with the ‘1961 Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs’ were originally intended to “protect the health and welfare of humankind”. However, in the following 30 years, a harsh interpretation of these treaties resulted in, over-incarceration, adverse health outcomes and needless deaths. The new report challenges this long held position, arguing that these policies have violated human rights without eradicating the illicit drug trade. 

Recently, a more liberal interpretation of these treaties has emerged, with a greater focus on human rights and harm reduction. Some countries have decriminalised drugs, meaning that people can no longer be arrested on the basis of drug use. 

More radically, in 2018, Canada became the first country to legalise cannabis, directly challenging the 1961 treaty that required countries to restrict it as a controlled substance. 

Now for the first time, the UN has encouraged Members to consider legal regulation as a solution to the human rights violations caused by prohibition. 


The War on People

The OHCHR argues that a “war on people” more accurately describes the impacts of drug prohibition. These policies have failed to stop the illicit drug trade, while hurting civilians who find themselves at the crossfire of the “war on drugs”. 

Globally, 3.1 million people have been arrested for drug offences. The OHCHR likens the “war on drugs” to “a system of racial control” , urgently calling for an end to “discriminatory law enforcement … on people of African descent, who are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted and severely sentenced for drug crimes”. This powerful recommendation challenges the deeply entrenched racism in countries that are over reliant on incarceration.  

The report also urges a repeal of laws that disproportionately target women and calls for an end to the criminalization of drug use during pregnancy. Drug prohibition has risen rates of women’s imprisonment internationally. 35% of women in prison were convicted of drug offences as opposed to 19% of imprisoned men. The OHCHR critiques the gender-blind nature of punitive drug policy which overlooks women’s nuanced experiences of vulnerability. 

Criminalising drug use is especially disastrous in States that have not abolished the death penalty. In these States, drug offences account for one third of fatal sentences. The OHCHR strongly condemns this imposition of the death penalty and calls for its universal abolition. Additionally, it encourages States to reallocate resources from law enforcement to health and social services.

Violations of The Right to Health

Over the last 10 years, there has been a 45% increase in the number of people suffering from problematic drug use globally. Out of these 39.5 million people, only 1 in 5 have access to treatment, the OHCHR warns that this breaches human rights. 

Even when drug treatment is available, there are often substantial barriers, such as stigma, shame and fear of persecution, which prevent access to these life saving services. Legal regulation would dissolve these structural barriers to treatment and "ensure access to justice, strengthen health and social services, and reduce stigma". 

A Better Way Forward

This report is not solely critical, it also applauds States that have made commendable strides in their efforts to move away from ‘zero tolerance’ toward harm reduction. 

Civil society groups have welcomed this report after decades of advocating against drug prohibition. However, translating this progressive report into national legislation will likely remain a challenge. Nonetheless, a key UN institution has taken a significant step in advocating for health centred drug policy. 

Prohibition doesn’t make sense, the fact that the UN recognises this and is critical of its own previous stance on drug policy is a major sign of progress. 

This report lays bare the harms of criminalisation and could help countries end the ‘war on drug users’ for good.

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