UN Report Calls for Drug Policies That Protect Human Rights, Reduce Harm

The United Nations says that the War on Drugs has “profound and far-reaching” impacts, and it’s time for member states to start implementing new policies.

On Sept. 20, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council published the UN Human Rights Office Report regarding human rights issues that have developed due to the War on Drugs. This report was created by request of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in April 2023, and was introduced during the 54th session of the Human Rights Council, which lasts between Sept. 11-Oct. 13.

“UN report urges [member] 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 posted on X.

The report suggests that decriminalizing drug possession for personal use should be a priority. “If effectively designed and implemented, decriminalization can be a powerful instrument to ensure that the rights of people who use drugs are protected,” a UN press release stated.

According to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, global change is sorely needed. “Laws, policies, and practices deployed to address drug use must not end up exacerbating human suffering. The drug problem remains very concerning, but treating people who use drugs as criminals is not the solution,” Türk said in a press release. “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.”

Ultimately, the report gathers that “disproportionate use of criminal penalties” lead drug users away from seeking out a treatment. Statistics gathered from the 2023 World Drug Report show that 660,000 people die from drug-related causes annually, and 10% of new HIV infections in 2021 were related to people who injected drugs.

The report calls the effects of the War on Drugs as “profound and far-reaching.” “Militarization 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 UN press release said.

The UN also stated that the people who are most negatively affected by current drug policies are Black women, women in general, indigenous people, and youths who come from poor backgrounds. “Today’s drugs policies have the greatest impact on those who are poorest and most vulnerable,” Türk added.

Due to an increase in people receiving the death penalty for drug-related convictions, many people have suffered at the hands of these policies. An estimated 37% of global executions were related to drug convictions, and those offenses doubled in 2022 compared to data provided in 2021.

Particularly in Singapore in recent years, the death penalty has been issued to people trafficking cannabis. In July 2022, Singapore executed a 49-year-old man for cannabis trafficking. In May 2023, the country hung a 37-year-old man for trafficking cannabis in the amount of three pounds, in addition to another individual who was hanged just a few weeks prior.

“The current overemphasis on coercion and control to counter drugs is fanning an increase in human rights violations despite mounting evidence that decades of criminalization and the so-called War on Drugs have neither protected the welfare of people nor deterred drug-related crime,” Türk concluded.

The press release for the report ends by applauding the countries that have worked to adopt policies that protect the public and defend humans rights, through “evidence-based, gender-sensitive and harm reduction approaches.”

The UN report includes a multi-point list of recommendations on how to reapproach drug policies and step back from harmful, punitive models. This includes suggestions such as implementing decriminalization, and adopting drug policies that “advance the rights of people who use drugs” and offer medical care to treat drug related conditions (such as viral hepatitis or HIV by way of injection). It also suggests policies that don’t lead to parents having their child removed from their care, or punishing pregnant people. The report also recommends abolishing the death penalty for all crimes, not just drug-related offenses, among many other strong proposals to put people first. 

The UN will review the 2019 Ministerial Declaration, which is an ongoing multi-year work plan to keep track of drug policy commitments made by member states, in 2024. That review will lead to the development of drug policies that need to be addressed by 2029, with the goal of having protected human rights by the 2039 UN Agenda.

In December 2020, a U.N. Commission for Narcotic Drugs panel voted to reclassify cannabis. While this recommendation didn’t guarantee that any member states would immediately legalize cannabis possession and use, it was still a monumental announcement. “This is a huge, historic victory for us, we couldn’t hope for more,” said independent drug policy researcher Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli. Many advocates applauded the decision and hoped that it would empower other countries to implement regulatory frameworks for cannabis. 

It’s safe to say that over the past three years, many countries have begun to reevaluate their drug policies and embrace cannabis legalization. 

The country of Malta became the first in the European Union to legalize cannabis in December 2021. Earlier this year in July, Luxembourg became the second EU country to legalize. Thailand also removed weed from its list of banned substances in June 2022.

Other countries, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, are working on cannabis pilot programs to test how legal cannabis would work in their respective regions.

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