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Drug control reformers must remember our commitment to human rights

The prohibitionist approach undertaken by drug policies has created a great deal of unnecessary suffering. With the United Nations General Assembly meeting this April, a paradigm shift is needed in our drug control system. Español

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A coca farmer worker speaks with police, Colombia. Flickr / Policia Colombia. Some rights reserved. A coca farmer worker speaks with police, Colombia. Flickr / Policia Colombia. Some rights reserved.In certain areas of Colombia, a paradox exists. Many drug users have been killed by ‘social cleansing’ armed groups, funded by drug trafficking and supported by members of the military forces. These victims dramatically reflect two of the critical mistakes of current drug policies: the stigmatisation of drug users, and the strengthening of criminal organisations that control the illegal drug markets and make corrupt alliances with authorities. The war on drugs in the Americas is full of stories in which human rights have been violated, thanks to wrong-headed policies. As Kofi Annan observes, “drugs have harmed many people, but bad government policies have harmed many more”. Now we have the opportunity to prevent this continuing.  

Prohibitionist approaches have fostered the creation of highly profitable illegal markets dominated by armed groups dedicated to trafficking. This huge illegal market has fueled the armed conflict in countries such as Colombia, becoming a serious obstacle to peace efforts. Repressive policies against the weakest, in order to deal with this problem, has instead created overloaded judicial systems, prison overcrowding and an incalculable number of deaths among men, women and children. Regulation of markets and alternative polices are not necessary soft-handed with criminal organisations. In fact, they are smarter approaches to defeat them, if they are combined with criminal prosecution policies focused on drug lords and their allies.

The incorporation of human rights in the context of drug policy has been a progressive discussion, with the growing understanding that a repressive approach is detrimental not only to the integral protection of fundamental rights but also for the realisation of the objectives proposed in the Drug Conventions. It is in this context, that the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 has a particular importance. It will allow for a paradigm shift in drug control, incorporating the human development approach and tools for the protection of human rights.

Indigenous peoples suffer particularly disproportionate impacts from drug policies. The criminalisation of the coca bush, opium and cannabis imposed by the 1961 Drug Convention, when it applies to indigenous, traditional and religious use, is a serious violation of their rights to maintain their culture. The prohibition on indigenous health and cultural practices without their free, prior and informed consent is also contrary to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is vital that their culture be protected, with the amendment of the dispositions of the 1961 Drug Convention that criminalise these practices and customs. Moreover, it is of the utmost importance that indigenous peoples be consulted, in a free, prior and informed manner about the implementation of legislation and policies that directly affect them.

The use of crop eradication methods, particularly through aerial fumigation, generates serious violations to the enjoyment of basic human rights. These methods affect legal crops, forests, herds and water sources, bringing food and water insecurity, environmental damage, health problems and displacement. Additionally, the efforts to eradicate illicit crops are usually executed before the implementation of alternative development policies, which leaves the affected without proper means of subsistence. The support for sustainable livelihoods of small producers, through realistic, participatory and non-discriminatory alternative development policies is an important step for a human rights-based drug regulation policy.

People who use drugs are at higher risk of contracting infectious diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS, in which case they suffer double discrimination, from both law enforcement and health-care providers. This institutionalised discrimination has been the subject of great concern from the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as the lack of appropriate policies contribute to the spread of such diseases, and the deterioration of the health and the quality of life of those already afflicted. While disease prevention policies applied to drug use have been developed, they almost exclusively aim at adults, consistently ignoring children who use drugs, in violation of the principle of integral protection, and more specifically, protection from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.

If we are to address the precarious situation of these individuals, the adoption of the intervention package proposed by the WHO, UNODC and UNAIDS would greatly enhance the protection of their human rights. It is important to develop policies focused on addressing discrimination, particularly in its institutionalised form.

The adoption of harm reduction policies is essential for the treatment of people who use drugs. Nevertheless, there is an impending need for the increase of domestic funding for harm reduction programmes and policies that promote inclusive and effective governance, such as reviewing laws criminalising drug use, and addressing legal, regulatory and policy barriers to accessing narcotic drugs for pain relief and drug treatment. Additionally, particular attention should be paid to detained individuals and pregnant women, since harm reduction programmes aimed at these groups are nearly non-existent.

The criminalisation of drugs has resulted in the displacement of the drug problem from a health to a law enforcement perspective.

Women who use drugs are constantly faced with institutionalised discrimination, such as, the risk of losing their parental rights, being forcibly submitted to abortion or sterilisation procedures and being subjected to disproportionately harsh punitive responses. Women also have been disproportionally affected by drug laws and incarceration. The development of gender-sensitive policies and legislation, including the availability of harm reduction treatments and the provision of drug sensitivity training to law enforcement, health and justice personnel, is imperative with respect for their rights to non-discrimination, self-determination and to access to health under the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The availability of controlled drugs, particularly for pain relief and scientific development, is essential in guaranteeing patients’ rights to health. It is important that governments comply with their obligation to ensure an adequate availability and accessibility of controlled drugs for all medical and scientific purposes, eliminating overly restrictive and discriminatory provisions that affect their delivery.

The criminalisation of drugs has resulted in the displacement of the drug problem from a health to a law enforcement perspective, alongside the criminalisation and marginalisation of people who use drugs and other vulnerable groups. Policies should decriminalise drug use and end any kind of prosecution against drug users. They should focus on a more humane and supportive treatment with the adoption of alternatives to imprisonment for related non-violent offences, which can greatly diminish the risk of drug use and blood-borne disease being spread, while increasing the health and living conditions of those who do use drugs.

Compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centres should be eradicated. It has been established that compulsory treatment not only violates numerous rights, such as the right to self-determination, non-discrimination and adequate living standards, but also does not contribute to overcoming the addiction, and in fact helps spread diseases.

The integral protection of human rights is imperative for any international normative body and state parties, even beyond their borders, as it is one of the foundational principles of the United Nations’ Charter. What will need to happen, if human rights are to prevail over the obligations proposed in the Drug Conventions? It will mean promoting the harmonisation of these two international law regimes, in accordance with article 103 of the Charter, and an effort that must be undertaken in order to preserve the spirit of this document and to promote better living conditions for all those affected by drugs and prohibitionist drug policies. 

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.
About the authors

Sergio Chaparro Hernández is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).

Carlos Juliano Simoes-Ferreira is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).


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