Major UN report condemns punitive drugs policies

The report calls for drug policies based on evidence, human rights and social justice
Steve Rolles (Transform)
Friday, March 15, 2019

António GuterresA new report from the United Nations System Coordination Task Team describes punitive drug policies as “ineffective in reducing drug trafficking or in addressing non-medical drug use and supply”. It goes on to say that such approaches “undermine the human rights and well-being of persons who use drugs, as well as of their families and communities.” The report represents a clear rejection of drug policies based on criminalisation, punishment and harsh enforcement, instead endorsing evidence based policy rooted in public health, sustainable development, and respect for human rights. As such it marks a major shift in collective thinking across the leading United Nations agencies – and a major victory for civil society reform advocates.

The Task Team was established by the Chief Executives Board of the UN, which represents the leadership of 31 UN agencies, chaired by the Secretary General (who also wrote the foreword to the report), with the purpose of reviewing the impact and effectiveness of global drug policy. As such, its findings set a clear marker of how the UN leadership should view drug policy going forward.

In addition to repeatedly setting out the ineffectiveness and injustices of punitive drug policies, the report calls for drug harms to be recognised as complex social phenomena. It rejects the simplistic view that drug harms are unrelated to the social and life experiences of drug users, as well as pointing to the serious harms that can arise from the unnecessary imprisonment and criminalisation of people who use drugs.

The report also provides support for a range of health and harm-reduction measures, including harm-reduction provision in prisons, gender specific services, heroin assisted treatment, and ‘proportionate and effective policies’ including  the diversion of people caught in possession away from criminal justice and into support. In doing so, it clearly describes how criminal justice approaches impact disproportionately on the poor and the marginalised, creating both stigma, social inequality, health harms and human rights abuses. It also highlights major concerns with supply side enforcement that enriches organised crime and can increase levels of violence and conflict.

Overall, the report calls for drug policies based on evidence, human rights and social justice, stating that:

“…if not based on human rights standards and a solid evidence base, drug policies can have a counterproductive effect on development. Abusive, repressive and disproportionate drug control policies and laws are counterproductive, while also violating human rights, undercutting public health and wasting vital public resources.” (P.25)

The report also suggests making changes to both drug laws and policing:

“Structural changes in legislation and law enforcement practices can facilitate the delivery of services, including minimizing the adverse consequence of drug use.” (P.26)

Published on the opening day of the High Level Segment of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna, attended by ministers and heads of state from across the globe, this is a vitally important intervention. It gives the lie to the claim that a punitive ‘war on drugs’ is either effective or just. It asserts the right to health of all people, including people who use drugs, and calls for approaches to prevention, treatment and harm reduction that are humane and grounded in the intention to support, rather than punish.

Transform welcomes this report – and encourages all people in the drug policy field to read its detailed evidence-based analysis and disseminate it widely. While it does not go as far as calling for legal regulation, it establishes clear principles on which drug policy should be based, while leaving no doubt as to the damaging impact of strict prohibition on individuals and communities.  We hope that this marks the beginning of a shift in perspective across the UN as a whole, especially those agencies responsible for drug policy now gathered in Vienna. The UN, and global leaders responsible for drug policy, should take note and take the next step in dismantling the disastrous system of drug control that this document so clearly rejects.

Read some key quotes from the report and the full version below.

Key quotes from the report:

“Criminalization of drug use and possession for personal use for purposes other than medical and scientific may lead to an increased risk of illness among people who use drugs and a negative effect on HIV prevention and treatment. It can increase stigma and discrimination, police harassment and arbitrary arrests. Higher rates of legal repression have been associated with higher HIV prevalence among people who use injecting drugs, without a decrease in prevalence of injecting drug use. This is a likely the result of individuals adopting riskier injection practices out of fear of arrest or punishment.” (P.25)

“Zero-tolerance policies, if not properly implemented, may run the risk of generating violence by stigmatizing and enabling the abuse of power to be directed against people who use drugs or low-level players in the drug trafficking chain. This, in turn, can lead to mass imprisonment for low-level offences or to forced detention of people who use drugs.” (P.27)

“The assumption that tougher law enforcement results in higher drug prices and therefore lowers the availability of drugs in the market is not supported by the empirical evidence. …although prohibition itself raises prices far above those likely to pertain in legal markets, there is little evidence that raising the risk of arrest, incarceration or seizure at different levels of the distribution system will raise prices at the targeted level, let alone retail prices. Drug seizures themselves cannot generally be expected to disrupt drug markets unless they are extremely large since usually suppliers can easily replace the lost drugs at wholesale costs. … once a market is established, there may be little return on an investment in intense law enforcement.” (P.27)

“In recent years there have been some alarming tendencies towards a deeper militarization of the responses by States to counter drug-related crimes. In some instances, this is associated with the progressive militarization of civilian police forces. Excessive use of force is more likely to occur when military or special security forces are involved in drug operations. Such approaches have disproportionately affected vulnerable groups and have repeatedly resulted in serious human rights violations.” (P.28)

“Billions of dollars flow through the hands of drug trafficking organizations each year, having a large impact on local and wider economies and polities. Some recent global estimates suggest that the proceeds of drug sales accounted for slightly more than one quarter of overall revenues of transnational organized crime groups in 2014, with a maximum range from around one fifth to one third of such revenues. In recent years, drug-related income seems to have represented the second largest source of income — after counterfeiting of a broad range of goods — of transnational organized crime groups at the global level.” (P.34)