United Nations Supports Decriminalisation of Drugs

The United Nations Chief Executives Board (CEB), comprising 31 heads of UN agencies and associated programs, has released a policy statement endorsing the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use. The same document also outlines a broader intent to shape international drug policy in terms of public health, human rights and sustainable development.

The 'directions for action' provided in the statement include a pledge 'to promote alternatives to conviction and punishment in appropriate cases, including the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use'.  This represents a significant advance from the UN's previous position.

Progress towards Decriminalisation

While certain agencies and figures within the UN – including General Secretary Ban Ki-moon – had already stated their support for decriminalisation, the lead agency for drug policy, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), was a notable outlier. In 2015, the UNODC provoked widespread controversy by belatedly withdrawing a policy document that directly affirmed decriminalisation, replacing it with language that instead referred only to 'alternatives to conviction or punishment'. The ambiguity of this statement left open the possibility of many forms of criminal proceedings against individual drug users, which could be a deterrent to their seeking help, and so deprive them of their human right to proper care. However, the UNODC has now signed on to the CEB statement, so UN policy is ostensibly settled in favour of decriminalisation.

The meaning of decriminalisation, on the other hand, is by no means a settled matter. Unlike legalisation, which includes the sale and production of drugs, the term refers only to personal possession and use, which can be difficult to define, and leaves significant grey areas where individuals continue to interact with an illegal market. In instances of possession and use that are deemed personal, there would either be a reduction of penalties from legal to civil – fines, for example - or non-punitive measures such as education and treatment programs. While the details will be contested, the UN's clarification of support is a significant step in the right direction for advocates of reform, who can return to member states with a clear message that individual drug users should not be treated as criminals.

Focus on Public Health, Human Rights and Sustainable Development

The landmark document more broadly commits UN agencies to support 'a rebalancing of drug policies and interventions towards public health approaches', emphasising 'harm reduction' with the goal of 'reducing pressure on health-care and criminal justice systems'. Member states are urged to 'ensure the respect for the dignity and human rights of people who use drugs', by providing 'equal access … to public services, including housing, health and education'.

The 'directions to action' further pledge to promote improved access to controlled medicines that treat or relieve the pain of drug dependence, and inclusion of drug use disorders in member states' overall healthcare programs. In line with the UN's sustainable development goals, areas adversely affected by the trafficking, production and cultivation of drugs should be supported by 'adequately-sequenced, well-funded and long-term development-oriented drug policies'.

Advocates of drug law liberalisation have generally welcomed the CEB report, and particularly its clarification of UN support for decriminalisation. Transform, a UK-based advocacy group, argue that this specific change will 'doubtless help accelerate the trend towards less repressive approaches towards people who use drugs', and that the general tone of the paper represents 'a clear divergence from the more punitive enforcement oriented narratives that more commonly emerge from member state consensus UN statements'.

Momentum leading up to the CND Summit

The report's arrival came at a crucial moment, prior to a meeting of key figures from UN member states and its agencies, at the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs, held in Vienna on 14-15 March, 2019. A further set of international governance standards, 'The International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy', was released concurrently with the summit, again stressing the importance of human rights and sustainability in the global drug control effort.

If there seemed to significant change under way at the UN, then reception of the summit itself may suggest otherwise. IDPC, a global consortium of NGOs concerned with drug policy, bemoaned the failure to conduct a formal review of global drug control, as had been promised, citing a reluctance 'to accept that decades of attempting to eradicate the global illicit drug market through punitive and repressive measures have failed'.

Ultimately, the actions of member states will dictate global policy outcomes, and the UN's inconsistency reflects the lack of consensus among them concerning the direction of reform. Civil institutions and private citizens have much work left to do if their political leaders are to take bold steps toward liberalisation. These recent reports are nevertheless positive signs of a growing acknowledgement that drug control has not only failed to deliver its intended result, but is itself a threat to our human rights and wellbeing.


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