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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

On drugs, Türk calls for human rights based policy, not repression

19 October 2023

Delivered by

Video message by Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


International Drug Policy Reform Conference, Phoenix, Arizona

Greetings to all of you, and thanks for the work you are doing to reform drug policies around the world.

Drug use has taken many lives. But even more lives have been harmed or destroyed by poorly constructed drug control policies.

Policies that punish people who use drugs with jail time and criminal records add to their suffering, make it more difficult for them to function in the legal economy, and drive them deeper underground – beyond the reach of help.

This emphasis on coercion and repression increases the human rights violations that are inflicted on people who use drugs.

There is also mounting evidence that criminalization and the ‘war on drugs’ approach have not deterred drug-related crime, and that they have failed to curb drug use.

The UN Human Rights Office, which I lead, recently issued a report, A/HRC/54/53,  on human rights challenges related to the world drug problem. It found that the persistence of compulsory or coercive treatment creates serious challenges to human dignity and contradicts international human rights standards.

The report also found that punitive drug control laws and law enforcement practices are among the main obstacles preventing people from entering drug treatment programmes when they need to. In 2021, only one in five people suffering from drug-related disorders was in treatment for drug use globally, with huge disparities in access to treatment around the world. Punitive laws and practices also result in stigma and social exclusion.

The so-called ‘war on drugs’ has militarized drug control efforts, with sharply escalating use of lethal force in drug-related law enforcement in several countries – alongside evidence of multiple and serious human rights violations in some cases. These range from unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, to arbitrary detentions and even extrajudicial killings.

The ‘war on drugs’ has been accompanied by increasing use of the death penalty for drug-related convictions worldwide, contrary to international human rights law. The recorded number of people executed for drug-related offences more than doubled in 2022 compared to 2021 – and this does not include countries that keep the number of people whom they execute a secret.

Use of the criminal justice system to deal with drug-related offences has also driven exponential growth of prison populations. This disproportionately affects people of African descent and young people from poor backgrounds.

Morally and practically, the ‘war on drugs’ approach has failed. The drugs problem remains very concerning, but treating people who use drugs as criminals is not the solution.

We need measures that can take control of illegal drug markets, such as responsible regulation that can eliminate profits from illegal trafficking, criminality and violence.

I am relieved to note that several countries have begun to approach drug usage as a public health and human rights issue -- applying evidence-based, gender-sensitive harm reduction approaches, and decriminalizing the use of some drugs.

Colombia, for example, announced last month a new policy that explicitly recognizes international human rights and drug policy guidelines. Its strong social approach includes specific focus on public health, the environment, and promoting rural development.

In Portugal, significant investment has been made in prevention, treatment and harm reduction measures, with job programmes and other policies aimed at giving people a practical future.

In Ghana, India and Mexico, recent legal reforms have emphasised alternatives to incarceration in some cases.

Czechia is holding discussions on decriminalizing the use of some addictive substances in relation to their harmfulness. It is vital that countries adopt drug policies that uphold the rights of people who use drugs, including by ensuring access to medical care and to harm reduction services, with measures that address the specific needs of women.

All forms of treatment for drug addiction must be voluntary. Discrimination against people of African descent, Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized populations by law enforcement and justice systems must be ended.

We need to address the underlying socioeconomic factors that increase the risks of using drugs, and the drug trade, by tackling social inequalities, promoting social justice and advancing human rights.

As many of you know, at the core of addiction is often the gnawing feeling that one’s life is unbearable. And that core feeling is what we need to help people to fix.

The best policy approaches to drug use must include meaningful engagement with people who use drugs, and affected communities, to ensure that drug policies are properly implemented and well designed.

Thank you.