The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform


From death sentences to legal cannabis coffee shops, how drug laws are interpreted vary the world over.

The UN Drug treaties (1961, 1971 and 1988) were written in order to standardise a universal approach to drug control. This prohibitionist approach was designed to create a drug free world. How countries have approached the issue of drug control within their own territories varies greatly though.

The Heaviest Punishments: Death Penalties

At the more punitive end of the spectrum are countries such as Iran, China and Signapore. A number of countries use the death penalty to punish drug users and dealers and implement punitive drug enforcement policies. Countries such as Thailand and China are major examples within this category.

Every year since 1990, China commemorates the UN’s International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking by carrying out show trials in which drug users are condemned to death and publicly executed. Additionally, in 2003 the Thai government unlawfully killed 2800 people, many of whom were small-time users, in order to make the country ‘drug free’ [1].

However, as a Beckley Foundation Working Paper first announced, countries such as Iran appear to be examining movements away from capital punishment. Another encouraging sign is the growing acceptance of the urgent need for harm reducing measures such as needle exchanges – with the catastrophic consequences of HIV/AIDS transmission helping to overcome idealogical barriers.

Enforced Treatment:

In various countries including Cambodia and Russia, drug users are often condemned to ‘treatment facilities’. These facilities often have terrible prison like conditions, where patients are forced into unpaid labour and exposed to Tuberculosis, HIV and Hepatitis C, as well as “subjected to experimental techniques, solitary confinement, mandatory HIV testing, and in some cases, physical and psychological abuse in the name of ‘drug treatment’” [1].

Heavy-Handed Criminalisation:

Whilst drug users are predominantly an issue for the criminal justice system, the levels of policing can vary widely. Whilst certain countries offer fines and warnings to certain users, countries including the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and even Canada have been known to use physical violence by the police during the arrest and detention process. One report on Kazakhstan claimed that the police force used “physical violence…including beatings with fists and with wooden clubs, to coerce confessions from drug users; psychological pressure on drug users’ relatives to prevent drug users’ future arrest; and breach of fair trial standards (including false or forced confessions) during trials of suspected drug offenders” [1].


In a general pattern worldwide, those incarcerated on drug charges make up a significant percentage of all prisoners. In the US, in spite of the fact that white Americans are statistically more likely to commit a drug crime, ten times more African Americans are sent to prison than whites. According to one report, African Americans comprise 15% of regular drug users, but they account for 37% of those arrested for drug charges and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison [2].

New Approaches:

Various countries including the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Portugal have decided that heavy-handed law enforcement is not the most appropriate manner to deal with drug control. These countries have decriminalised one or more drugs and seen positive results.

Given that so many countries (the majority being signatory countries of the UN Drug Conventions) have such a wide range of interpretations of drug laws, would it not be more appropriate to now allow individual countries to examine what is best for their individual needs? International drug policy must now be re-evaluated and countries permitted to experiment with and change control provisions within their own territory. For this to happen the 3 conventions need to be amended. This task has recently been undertaken by the Beckley Foundation with its commissioning of the new UN Draft Convention on all Illegal Drugs as part of the Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform.



[1] Human Rights Watch, ‘Drug Policy and Human Rights’.

[2] Huffington, A. ‘AWOL in the real drug war’, LA TIMES, 24 March 2007