The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

Human Rights

Many human rights groups, including within the United Nations, have been raising concerns that the current approach to drug control violates international human rights law.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays out certain fundamental principles that underpin all aspects of national and international policy. These rights unconditionally apply to every human being, and override principles laid out by other declarations. The rights to life, to health, to practice a religion, to a fair trial, and to be free from torturous treatment and discrimination come under threat from the current drug conventions. It is in the best interest of countries with a concern for human rights to remedy these contradictions.

Rights to Health can be argued to be violated by witholding of needle exchanges on idealogical grounds, but also from the difficulties faced in getting painkillers to developing nations, in particular opioid medication. The WHO estimates that 80% of the world’s population suffer from no or low access to controlled medicines, such as morphine, and therefore have no or insufficient treatment for moderate to severe pain. They must recover from surgery, give birth, and suffer terminal diseases, all without the simple and inexpensive relief provided by these medicines [1]. Furthermore, since these are classifed as essential medicines, the current system which denies their access is a violation of international human rights law.

Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has stated:

“Individuals who use drugs do not forfeit their human rights. Too often, drug users suffer discrimination, are forced to accept treatment, marginalized and often harmed by approaches which over-emphasize criminalization and punishment while under-emphasizing harm reduction and respect for human rights.” [2]

Since ‘The War on Drugs’ formally started, the number of countries enforcing the death penalty for drug related crimes has increased dramatically [2]. In 1948, China was the only country to use this approach. By the year 2000, over 36 countries were killing prisoners as punishment for trafficking, production and sometimes even consumption of illegal drugs [2].

Some human rights groups are worried that by supplying these countries with money and resources, the UNODC, European Commission and individual European states are endorsing the death penalty for drug offences [2], something which they publicly deny.

According to international law the death penalty as a punishment is exclusively reserved for, ‘the most serious crimes’ [2]. Such crimes are ones that result in ‘lethal or other extremely grave consequences’ [3]. Without a doubt, this should not properly include the low-level dealing or production which make up the majority of charges.

Targeting Racial Minorities and Indigenous Communities

While the drug war is often fought in the name of protecting the vulnerable, it is in fact vulnerable and disenfranchised ethnic minorities that are disproportionately affected by the policing of the war on drugs.

According to the British Crime Survey, black and Asian people are marginally less likely to be carrying or use drugs. In spite of this, members of the black community are 9.2 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, according to a professor of Criminology’s report [4]. It is not just at the ground level of policing that official reports show discrimination against ethnic minorities, but an increased willingness to prosecute defendants from a minority background. Black people in England and Wales are 6.1 times more likely to be arrested, and 11.4 times more likely to be jailed for drug offences than white people [3]. In the UK around a quarter of people serving charges for drug offences are from African or Caribbean backgrounds, while only comprising 2.2% of the population [4].

More than one third of the 25.4 million Americans that have been arrested on drug charges since 1980 have been black. Black men are sent to US state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of black men [5]. According to Human Rights Watch, in some states black men are sent to federal prison at a rate up to 57 times greater than white men [6]. The War on Drugs disproportionately affects black males, as they are targeted by police using racial profiling, even though they are no more likely to be drug users than white people.

Mind-altering drugs are an important part of many religions. Shamans in Mexico have been ingesting peyote to experience transcendence for millennia, and the indigenous population of Bolivia practice picchar, the chewing of coca leaves. These are fundamental and crucial components of the respective religions, and according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should be allowed to continue without intervention [7]. Current international drug control risks being culturally ignorant in dictating what parts of ancestral heritage can be preserved, despite hundreds of years of continued use without mass deaths and harms.

Bolivia recently had to withdraw from the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, because it was denying the country’s people to practice their religion: Article 49 states that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished” [8]. Bolivia hopes to rejoin with a reservation regarding chewing of the coca leaf for religious or spiritual practices in January 2013, although this relies on no more than one third of the countries under the 1961 Convention objecting to its reservation. Bolivia has come under strong criticism from both the US Government and the INCB, and faced having development aid withdrawn as a result of its decision (an example of the carrot and stick approach of US-led prohibitionism)


Drug users are often stigmatised. Their identities are lost behind the label of ‘druggie’. Often once this label has been applied it is difficult to get past it.

As one report concluded: “the general public perceives problem drug users to be dangerous, deceitful, unreliable, unpredictable, hard to talk with and to blame for their predicament. Young people may have more negative views in this respect than adults. The families of users are also stigmatised, being seen as partly responsible for their relative’s addiction [9].

Users often avoid treatment, feeling that this will solidify their status as a ‘junkie’, which in turn can lead to rejection by friends and family. Former users are often stigmatised for life and prevented from access to social benefits, such as housing and potential employment. The media have a vitally important role in determining how the general public understands addiction and users, “the pejorative term ‘junkie’ is frequently used in the best selling newspapers in the UK and there is a strong note of invective in many of their articles”[9]. However, it is not just the general public who are guilty of stigmatising users, one study has shown that even “mental health professionals are influenced by language and that describing someone as ‘a substance abuser’ rather than as having ‘a substance use disorder’ is more likely to elicit responses identifying the person as responsible for their condition and suggesting that punitive measures should be taken against them” [9].


Problematic drug-users should not be treated as criminals, but from a health perspective as patients. No matter what one feels about drugs, certain human rights are universal and must be upheld.

[1] WHO Briefing Note Feb 2009 Access to Controlled Medicines Programme

[2] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2009) High Commissioner calls for focus on human rights and harm reduction in international drug policy Geneva: United Nations

[3] IHRA, Complicity or Abolition? The Death Penalty and International Support for Drug Enforcement; see also: P Gallahue and R Lines (2010) The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2010.

[4] A Stevens, (2011), Drugs, Crime and Public Health, London: Routledge, pp. 96 – 100.

[5] H Trice Edney, ‘Black Leaders Call For War On The ‘War On Drugs’’, The Seattle Medium, 22 June 2011.

[6] ‘Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs’, Human Rights Watch, 07 June 2000.

[7] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[8] UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961.

[9] C Lloyd, UKDPC (2010) Sinning and Sinned Against: The Stigmatisation of Problem Drug Users.