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Countries should put women at the forefront of the UN drug policy debate

Globally, women make up one-third of all drug users, including approximately 3.8 million women who inject drugs. Reuters/Stringer

The United Nations will hold a special session in New York this week to review global drug policy. The summit has the potential to revolutionise the drug control system enshrined in international law since 1961.

If UN member states are serious about drug reform, they must act on the disproportionate harm of prohibitionist drug policies on women worldwide.

Globally, women make up one-third of all drug users, including around 3.8 million women who inject drugs. Women who use drugs are at higher risk than men of acquiring disease, including HIV. These unique challenges are due to biological differences, social and structural vulnerabilities, and decreased economic opportunities.

Failure of current approach

Countries spend more than US$100 billion annually on drug control. This approach has led to mass incarceration, public health crises, unprecedented crime and black-market–fuelled violence. Levels of addiction and associated harms around the world have continued to rise along with profits from organised crime.

Meanwhile, our legal systems have consistently failed drug-involved women.

The number of women incarcerated for drug-related offences has skyrocketed. More than 60% of Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and Peru’s female prison populations are jailed for drug-related crimes. In Europe and Central Asia, this figure is more than one in four women.

Jailing women for non-violent drug crimes has torn families apart and perpetuated poverty. In many countries, using drugs while pregnant can lead to losing custody of one’s children and tearing families apart.

According to UN Women, women who are part of gangs and drug-trafficking syndicates are often delegated to low-ranking, low-paying, high-risk positions. Many act as drug mules who are forced to carry large quantities of drugs across borders, risking harsh legal repercussions.

Women’s experience

Existing drug treatment and harm-reduction services generally apply a one-size-fits-all approach. They rarely focus on the specific needs of women. Compared with men, only a fraction of substance-using women complete treatment and few access other health services. This experience is shaped by stigma and discrimination from women’s own families, health workers and law enforcement.

Drug-involved women experience sexual violence rates up to five times higher than women in the general population. Such violence is perpetrated not only by intimate partners, but also by police and health workers. This leaves women with few places to seek support and improve their lives.

Violence and extortion perpetrated by law-enforcement increases unsafe sex and drug injecting. This, in turn, leads to increased risk of getting HIV, creating a vicious cycle of addiction, violence and disease among one of the world’s most marginalised populations.

Unprecedented opportunity to change lives

The unattainable, narrow vision of a “drug-free world” that guides the current framework has caused greater harm than the drugs themselves. An unprecedented number of countries have voiced discontent with the existing drug-control regime.

Governments around the world have begun calling for new strategies. Recent drug policy reforms in countries as diverse as Portugal, Uruguay and parts of the US have spurred on unprecedented impetus for change.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged member states “to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options” at next week’s drugs summit. He emphasised that we need “approaches rooted in science, public health and human rights”.

The UNGASS summit will provide a high-level platform to formally acknowledge the growing debate on drug policy reform, and to recognise alternative policy approaches that represent a more humane and evidence-based approach rooted in health and human rights. This includes decriminalisation of drug use, a more prominent role for harm-reduction programs and better access to controlled pain medicines.

Several experts and civil society organisations have pushed for a total revamp of the drug-control framework. The UNGASS 2016 Women’s Declaration has civil society signatories from over 20 countries. The International Network of Women Who Use Drugs, which represents drug-involved women worldwide, outlined steps toward aligning drug policy reform and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Although a repeal of the founding international drug treaties is unlikely, there is hope that the summit could result in more flexibility for states to experiment with approaches like decriminalisation and regulation of controlled substances.

For women involved with and affected by the current drug framework, such reforms could mean better access to life-saving health and support services, opportunities to pursue alternative economic options, and a second chance at leading productive lives outside of prison walls.

Reaffirming the status quo would be a blatant disregard of convincing scientific evidence exposing the failures of the current approach, and the gains made by alternative approaches in a growing number of nations.

The UN drugs summit can change the lives of the world’s most disadvantaged women, their families and their communities. UN member nations meeting in New York this week have a unique opportunity to shift the course of history, and it may not come again for another 50 years.

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