A group of United Nations (UN) experts is calling for an end to the global war on drugs—and a separate drug policy commission comprised of presidents and prime ministers from around the world is advocating for legal and regulated access to currently illicit substances.
UN’s coalition of “special rapporteurs” appointed by the Human Rights Council—as well as the independent Global Commission on Drug Policy—marked Monday’s International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking by pushing for comprehensive reform.
“The ‘war on drugs’ may be understood to a significant extent as a war on people,” the UN experts said in a statement on Friday. “Its impact has been greatest on those who live in poverty, and it frequently overlaps with discrimination directed at marginalised groups, minorities and Indigenous Peoples.”
“Drug use and possession for personal use should be decriminalised as a matter of urgency,” they said.
The rapporteurs also noted racial disparities in drug criminalization enforcement worldwide, arguing that the drug war “has been more effective as a system of racial control than as a tool to reduce drug markets.”
Members made clear they believe the international community should depart from criminalization and embrace “life-saving harm reduction interventions, which are essential for the protection of the right to health of people who use drugs.”
The statement also condemns the use of aerial fumigation to disrupt the production of plants like coca that are used by certain indigenous communities and are also key to the manufacturing of cocaine. Some U.S. lawmakers have worked to eliminate federal funding of such controversial eradication efforts in Colombia.
UN-appointed experts also said that drug criminalization contributes to harmful stigmatization of drug use that “results in significant barriers to access to health services (including those for HIV and palliative care) and in other human rights violations.”
“Drug use or dependence are never a sufficient justification for detaining a person,” they said. “Compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centres need to be closed and replaced with voluntary, evidence-informed, and rights-based health and social services in the community.”
“We urge Member States and international bodies to supersede their current drug policies with ones grounded in the principles of the application of a comprehensive, restorative and reintegrative justice approach,” the statement concludes. “Effective, community-based, inclusive, and preventive measures are equally important. Now more than ever, the international community must replace punishment with support and promote policies that respect, protect and fulfill the rights of all.”
Separately, UN Secretary General António Guterres, who oversaw the enactment of a national drug decriminalization law when he served as Portugal’s prime minister, called out the discrimination that drug consumers experience.
“Drug users are doubly victimized: first by the harmful effects of the drugs themselves, and second by the discrimination they face,” he tweeted on Sunday. “As we mark #WorldDrugDay, we continue our work to end drug abuse, illicit trafficking & stigma endured by drug users worldwide.”
Drug users are doubly victimized: first by the harmful effects of the drugs themselves, and second by the discrimination they face.
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) June 26, 2023
In 2019, the UN Chief Executives Board (CEB), which represents 31 UN agencies including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), adopted a position stipulating that member states should pursue science-based, health-oriented drug policies—namely decriminalization.
Meanwhile, the Global Commission on Drug Policy is advocating for broader reform on the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, calling for the legalization and regulation of currently prohibited substances.
The commission—whose members include former Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, former Brazil President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and other world leaders—said that the drug war has “repeatedly demonstrated that punitive drug policies systematically lead to human rights violations and abuses.”
The statement released by the commission on Monday also takes note of international drug policy reform developments, including efforts to legalize marijuana in Colombia and Germany, and the enactment of drug decriminalization in a key Australian territory last year.
“The Global Commission on Drug Policy calls for more of such constructive actions in policy and practice by national and local governments,” it says. “The consequences of unjust drug policies are widespread in most aspects of individual and collective life. It is a common responsibility for all committed to health, social wellbeing, economic integration and development, to overcome discrimination and stigmatization, and uphold human rights for all.”
The specific policies that the commission, of which Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson is also a member, is championing are to “put health first, guarantee access to controlled medicines, decriminalize the consumption and the possession of drugs for personal use, focus law enforcement on the persons running criminal organizations and, last but not least, legally regulate drug markets in order to disempower organized crime. Legal regulation is both a public health imperative and a necessary step to advance drug policy reform.”