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UN experts call for end to global ‘war on drugs’

23 June 2023

International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking
23 June 2023

GENEVA (23 June 2023) – The international community must replace punishment with support and promote policies that respect, protect and fulfil the rights of all, UN experts* said today. Ahead of the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking 2023, they called for transformative change in the international approach to drugs, focusing on health and other human rights and issued the following statement:

“The ‘war on drugs’ may be understood to a significant extent as a war on people. Its impact has been greatest on those who live in poverty, and it frequently overlaps with discrimination directed at marginalised groups, minoritiesand Indigenous Peoples. In our reporting and experience, we have found that such discriminatory impact is a common element across drug policies with regard to the widest range of human rights, including the right to personal liberty; freedom from torture, ill-treatment and forced labour; fair trial rights; the right to health, including access to essential medicines, palliative care, comprehensive drug prevention and education, drug treatment, and harm reduction; the right to adequate housing; freedom from discrimination and the right to equal treatment before the law; right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment; cultural rights and freedoms of expression, religion, assembly and association.

Globally, drug control has had massive costs for the dignity, humanity and freedom of people of African descent, with reports showing that people of African descent face disproportionate and unjust law enforcement interventions, arrests and incarceration for drug-related offences. In various countries, the ‘war on drugs’ has been more effective as a system of racial control than as a tool to reduce drug markets. Policing interventions based on racial profiling remain widespread, whilst access to evidence-based treatment and harm reduction for people of African descent remains critically low.

Around the world, women who use drugs face significant stigma and discrimination in accessing harm reduction programmes, drug dependence treatment and basic health care. Although one in three people who use drugs are women, women constitute only one in five people in treatment. Women are also disproportionately affected by criminalisation and incarceration, with 35% of women in prison worldwide having been convicted of a drug-related offence compared to 19% of men. The causes of women’s interaction with the criminal justice system in relation to drugs are complex, often linked to other factors such as poverty and coercion, and may reflect systemic gender inequality in society more broadly. Of note, most women in prison for drug related offences have little education.

Under international law, States that have not yet abolished the death penalty may only impose capital punishment for the ‘most serious crimes’, meaning crimes of extreme gravity involving intentional killing. Drug offences clearly do not meet this threshold. However, drug-related offences are still punishable by death in over 30 countries, and human rights experts have raised concerns about evidence of its discriminatory impact on individuals belonging to minorities.

Everyone without exception has the right to life-saving harm reduction interventions, which are essential for the protection of the right to health of people who use drugs. However, according to UN data, only 1 in 8 people with drug dependence have access to appropriate treatment, and the coverage of harm reduction services remains very low. The situation is particularly critical for women, LGBTIQ+ persons, and other marginalised groups, for whom harm reduction and treatment services may not be adapted or respond to their specific needs. Women and LGBTIQ+ persons also face even higher levels of stigma, including self-stigma, and discrimination than men who use drugs.

As the world grows older, drug use among people over 65 has also increased. The COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on the health and well-being of older persons, and studies show an increased use of pain relievers, tranquillizers, and sedatives among this age group. Older drug users are also more often using the dark web, social media, and online forums to obtain illicit substances resulting in a rise of drug-related deaths among older populations.

The criminalisation of substances traditionally used by Indigenous Peoples such as the coca leaf can also result in the suppression, undermining and marginalization of traditional and indigenous knowledge systems and medicine, which has wide-ranging health impacts and is rooted in discriminatory hierarchies and conceptions. Forced eradication of crops, including through the aerial spraying of highly hazardous pesticides, can cause serious harm to the environment and clean water, as well as to the health and welfare of Indigenous communities. Indigenous Peoples that might be affected by these and other drug control operations must be meaningfully consulted, and guarantees should be given that their lives, cultural practices, lands and natural resources are not violated.

Criminal laws and the punitive use of administrative and other sanctions stigmatise already marginalised populations. Criminalisation results in significant barriers to access to health services (including those for HIV and palliative care) and in other human rights violations. As called for by the UN system Common Position on drug-related matters, drug use and possession for personal use should be decriminalised as a matter of urgency. Drug use or dependence are never a sufficient justification for detaining a person. 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.

In line with the theme this year,“People first: stop stigma and discrimination, strengthen prevention”, the United Nations and the international community have a historical responsibility to reverse the devastation brought about by decades of a global ‘war on drugs’ on communities that have been marginalised and discriminated against.

As we did in 2022, we call on Member States and all UN agencies to ground their drug policy responses in international human rights law and standards. States and international bodies that provide financial or technical assistance on drug policy should ensure that these policies are gender-responsive while upholding and actively seeking to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

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. 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 fulfil the rights of all.”


*The experts: Priya Gopalan (Chair), Matthew Gillett (Vice-Chair on Communications), Ganna Yudkivska (Vice-Chair on Follow-Up), Miriam Estrada-Castillo and Mumba Malila, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Alexandra Xanthaki, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; Dorothy Estrada Tanck (Chair), Ivana Radačić (Vice-Chair), Elizabeth Broderick, Meskerem Geset Techane and Melissa Upreti, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences; Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on the right to education; Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences; Ms. Siobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in person; Ashwini K.P, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism; David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment; José Francisco Calí Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples; Claudia Mahler, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons; Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Marcos A. Orellana, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work voluntarily; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.


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For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Maya Derouaz ([email protected]) and Dharisha Indraguptha ([email protected]).

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