Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Drug policies: High Commissioner calls for transformative changes
13 March 2023
Thank you for this opportunity to speak to the Commission. Our organizations share a profound concern about the health and welfare of human beings.
This year, you will be preparing the 2024 mid-term review of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration on persistent and emerging challenges related to the global drug situation. This is a key moment. As you look back, to take stock of results to date, you will also be looking forward – planning what ground should be covered by 2029, and how to do it.
I encourage that the mid-term review embraces full participation by civil society – including the voices of people who use drugs - and by all relevant United Nations bodies, to ensure that drug policies are grounded in human rights, in particular health and development.
The review also provides an occasion for the Commission to renew its strong commitment to human rights as part of transformative change to address the global drug situation.
According to the 2022 World Drug Report, around 284 million people use drugs worldwide.
Over 11 million people inject them.
We are all aware of the continued uncontrolled growth of global markets in illegal drugs and the impact on societies around the world. From violent crime, to ruin and loss of life, to mass incarceration – the toll is unbearably heavy.
But if drugs destroy lives, the same can also be true of drug policies.
In recent years we have seen some politicians directing hatred against people who use drugs; declaring ‘war’ against their own people because of drug-related criminality; militarizing drug law enforcement; and, in a few cases, resorting to measures such as widespread extra-judicial killings.
In many other countries, decades of punitive, ‘war on drugs’ strategies have failed to prevent an increasing range and quantity of substances produced and consumed.
Drug crime is one of the chief reasons that well over 2 million people are currently in prisons and other facilities of detention.
In 35 countries, the death penalty is prescribed for drug-related offenses. Yet, international human rights law restricts the use of capital punishment to the most serious crimes, understood as involving ‘intentional killing’. I reiterate my call on States that maintain the death penalty to abolish it, including for drug-related offences.
The ‘war on drugs’ paradigm is detrimental to public health. Fear of arrest and widespread stigma around drug use prevent people who use drugs, from accessing healthcare, harm reduction services and effective voluntary treatment programmes. This is clearly a factor in the very high number of deaths resulting from substance abuse – 1.2 million people in 2019, according to the latest available data.
The ‘war on drugs’ approach also perpetuates existing patterns of discrimination, including against people of African descent, women and indigenous peoples.
Driving the drug trade underground leads to the development of criminal networks.
It is clear to many that the ‘war on drugs’ is not working. And a number of countries have led the way forward.
For example, earlier this month, the President of Colombia told the Human Rights Council he was "leaving behind prohibition as a dominant paradigm" in favour of drug policies "based on human rights.”
Ghana has also been a key supporter of a human rights and public health approach to drug policy, demonstrated by its recent drug law reform.
We must continue this progress in all regions of the world, and stop the war on drugs. Instead, let us focus on transformative change, crafting drug policies which are based on evidence, which put human rights at their centre, which are gender-sensitive, and which ultimately improve the lives of the millions of individuals affected.
I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead.