It’s 110 years since international cooperation on drug control began. In February 1909 the International Opium Commission in Shanghai saw governments from around the world come together to address what was dubbed “the opium question”, by proposing a global plan to suppress illicit opium use and markets. The meeting kicked off a century-long project of ever increasing international collaboration to eradicate illicit drug use and markets, culminating in the three United Nations drug treaties adopted in 1961, 1971 and 1988.
Since the 1970s, and the start of the “war on drugs”, these efforts have been marked by the increasing use of laws focused on punishment, policing, prisons and even the military as core tools of drug enforcement. Alongside this there has also been an escalation of human rights violations linked to drug control.
While ignored for many decades, the human rights consequences of drug enforcement are an increasing concern within UN bodies. In some cases, this is the result of years of patient campaigning by civil society organisations and affected communities. In others, it has been triggered by gross human rights violations linked to drugs, such as state killings, the death penalty for drug offenders and HIV epidemics driven by unsafe injecting drug use.
While this attention is welcome, it has rarely resulted in systematic or operational change within UN mechanisms to ensure the protection of human rights. But this is now beginning to change.
In early March, the Chief Executives Board of the United Nations, representing 31 UN agencies – including the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – adopted a common position on drug policy. Among the actions agreed is was a commitment to “support the development and implementation of policies that put people, health and human rights at the centre … and to promote a rebalancing of drug policies and interventions towards public health approaches”.
This agreement creates potential for significant policy evolution on drugs within the UN as a whole. However, the vast majority of human rights violations driven by drug control – executions, killings, involuntary crop eradication, mass incarceration, racist policing, gender-based violence, denial of life saving health programmes, to name a few – are not the result of UN inaction. They are driven by national laws and policies that member state governments implement to, in their view, fulfil UN drug treaties obligations.
Over the past decade, some countries have begun to review and reform these harmful rules, promoting societal well-being and reducing the harms of illicit drug economies. Judicial reviews of the criminalisation of possession for personal use have taken place in Argentina and South Africa, for example. There have been national referendums on promoting health in drug policy in Italy and Switzerland, and legislative reviews of cannabis laws in Uruguay, Canada and some US states.
Despite this progress, far too many countries remain entrenched in the war on drugs approach, and human rights violations are still taking place as a result. Member states’ divergent approach has resulted in increasingly fragmented political discourse in UN forums too. Human rights discussions are divisive, and commitments to promote them largely rhetorical or lost in diplomatic translation.
From questions to solutions
The stagnation of these political debates has often obscured progressive developments on human rights and drug control elsewhere in the UN. What has been missing to bridge this gap is a shared tool to clarify global human rights conversations and guide national reform. Which is just what we, as part of a team of international experts, have now published with United Nations Development Program, World Health Organisation and UNAIDS as the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy.
Based on established international legal standards, these guidelines cover 27 principles that span the drug market from cultivation to consumption. It is also a catalogue that reflects the expansive human experience of drug control, from cancer patients travelling days to receive morphine, to the struggles of indigenous peoples to protect their sacred relationship with psychoactive plants, to the people who are criminalised for using drugs and denied essential harm reduction services.
The guidelines do not create new laws, but centralise existing human rights standards in the context of drug control. They provide concrete guidance on what states can and should do to promote the safety, security, well-being and rights of their communities. Following their launch, sub-regional and national dialogues with key government, civil society and academic stakeholders are being planned to localise and demonstrate the practical power of these standards.
The century-old international drug control monolith was not erected overnight. Nor will it be reformed or dismantled overnight. That process will take time and determination, and commitment to prioritising evidence, health and rights in national and international lawmaking. The guidelines are one milestone in that journey towards reform, one that we hope helps shift the focus of global drug policy away from “the opium question” to “the rights solution”.