It has long been observed that drug policy and human rights operate in ‘parallel universes’ at the United Nations. While there is some way to go before these two universes are truly reconciled, yesterday we witnessed a decisive step in the right direction. To mark the International Day Against Illicit Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse, a group of eminent UN human rights experts, representing twelve UN Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, released a powerful joint statement, noting that ‘the UN system, the international community and individual Member States have a historical responsibility to reverse the devastation brought about by decades of a global “war on drugs”’.

The experts are unequivocal in their position that repressive drug policies have resulted in serious and far-reaching consequences for human rights, and have undermined health and social well-being, constituting a waste of public resources as these approaches have failed to eliminate the illegal drug trade. The statement highlights the systemic and structural forms of discrimination that the “war on drugs” has fostered, especially on people of colour and those with “multiple intersectional identities”. The disproportionate impact on women, who are incarcerated at a far higher rate for drugs than men throughout the world, is of particular concern. The statement ends with a strong call for the international community to ‘replace punishment with support and promote policies that respect, protect and fulfil the rights of all communities’.

Yesterday, this message was loudly echoed across the globe as the ever-growing international drug policy reform movement came together in solidarity on the occasion of the 10th Global Day of Action of the Support. Don’t Punish campaign. A record-breaking 284 cities in 91 countries held an action to mark this moment – rallying thousands of advocates and activists from across the globe in a united clarion call to demand an end the “war on drugs”. 

Maria-Goretti Ane (IDPC) discusses drug policy reform with local media as part of a dialogue organised on the occasion of the Support. Don't Punish Global Day of Action by WADPN.

These critical calls for reform contribute to the accelerating global momentum for changes in how societies approach drugs. Over the past decade, increasing numbers of progressive reforms have been adopted – and in just recent weeks there have been several important developments that illustrate this trend. At the start of June, the District of British Colombia in Canada decriminalised the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. This is definitely a positive step in the right direction, although critics have also noted that the threshold amount of 2.5g is too low and lament that the government is not considering national-level decriminalisation in face of a serious overdose crisis.  A week later, on the other side of the world, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) announced plans to decriminalise the possession of small quantities of all drugs becoming the first Australian jurisdiction to do so (so far, only cannabis was decriminalised in some Australian territories).

Meanwhile in Southeast Asia, Thailand took a bold step by removing the entire cannabis plant from its narcotic code on 9 June (although extracts containing above 0.2% THC remain scheduled). While the exact legal regime is still somewhat unclear, use and possession will no longer be criminalised and people are allowed to grow at home for their own medical use. Thailand also heeded calls on the need to ensure reparations and has expunged some 4000 criminal records for cannabis offences and released around 3000 people from prison. This is a huge step for a country that has been known for its draconian drug policy and this policy change may have implications for other countries in Southeast Asia. Cannabis has emerged as the wedge substance that is driving a re-think of drug policies as several countries in Europe also consider market regulation.

Source: Jane Holloway / A cannabis dispensary in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

While there have been heartening reforms taking place at country-level, unfortunately some countries continue to strengthen their “war on drugs” approach, notable examples are Brazil and the Philippines. In parallel, there are still highly problematic tensions at the UN. The UN human rights regime has taken up the mantel and become ever more vocal on the harms caused by punitive drug policies and made clear recommendations to governments to move away from criminalisation and punishment. Just a few days ago, the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report on Human Rights and HIV/AIDS in which she urged governments to ‘repeal, rescind or amend laws and policies that create barriers or access to health services or that discriminate, explicitly or in effect, against people living with HIV, particularly key populations’.

Unfortunately, the lead UN agency on the issue, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), remains reluctant to make these obvious linkages and to unequivocally encourage governments to reform damaging policies.

Today, the UNODC released its annual World Drug Report – an impressive publication that analyses the developments and trends in the global drug market in great detail. However, year on year this report is also the most complete chronicle of the abject failure of drug control to reduce or eliminate international drug markets. This year has been no exception, with the UNODC noting that drug markets are ‘booming’ and that the number of people who use drugs aged 15-64 has increased by 26% between 2010 and 2020. The report also sheds light on the devastating number of drug-related deaths which have reached 494,000 in 2019 alone, representing an increase by 17.5% between 2009 and 2019. And yet, the UNODC fails to acknowledge how punitive drug policies themselves have exacerbated these harms, and how measures such as decriminalisation can contribute to reducing them. The agency once again stays silent on the devastating human rights consequences of drug policies – a silence that stands in stark contrast with the new statement of the 12 UN human rights experts.

The theme of this year’s World Drug Report is on ‘Drugs and the Environment’ which is a topic that deserves full attention given the global climate crisis and has not been covered in detail before. Yet, despite the thorough analysis on several issues, UNODC again falls short of outlining how drug policies themselves can fuel environmental damage and making clear what policy changes are needed. Instead, they advocate that the objective of “do no harm to the environment” should be mainstreamed in drug policy making. While this is welcome, it would better if UNODC stepped up and made clear that ‘do no harm’ should be the underlying principle across all drug policies.

As the 26th June statement from the UN human rights experts demonstrates, the pressure to end the outdated, damaging and racist “war on drugs” is mounting. Governments and UN entities must take up their “historical responsibility” and reform drug policies ensuring that human rights are front and centre. At this juncture, with the drug war’s harms laid bare, anything less would be unconscionable.