Wednesday, 20 September 2023 (Geneva, Switzerland) — In a historical report launched today, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights denounced the failure of punitive drug policies and the global ‘war on drugs’, and called for a new approach based on health and human rights, including through the legal regulation of drugs. To implement the recommendations laid down by the High Commissioner, we call on the international community to reform and rebalance the global drug control regime, and national drug laws and policies.

For decades, the unrealistic goal of achieving a ‘drug-free society’ has driven the international community to approach drugs with prohibition, criminalisation and harsh punishment. Following the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) in 2016, there has been growing emphasis at the UN on the health, human rights, and development dimensions of drugs and drug policy. But efforts to materialise these commitments have been insufficient. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has now taken a bold step forward with the unequivocal recognition that punitive drug policies drive widespread human rights violations and fuel discrimination.

With this report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is the first UN agency to call for the responsible regulation of drugs as a pragmatic measure to protect public health and the human rights of all. This comes at a time when over 250 million people already live in jurisdictions where legal cannabis markets are a reality, and countries such as Colombia and Germany are announcing similar plans. In addition, Bolivia has just triggered the process to review the international scheduling and control of the coca leaf, as it was subject to international control in 1961 on the basis of outdated and racist prejudices.

The new report also systematises the growing body of recommendations on drug policy provided by UN human rights experts. As such, it serves as a blueprint to design responses based on the respect of public health and human rights. Some of the most important findings include:

  •  Recognising harm reduction as a central element of the right to health
  •  Identifying the militarisation of drug control as a driver of state violence
  •  Calling for the abolition of the death penalty for drug offences
  •  Recognising the contribution of disproportionate drug laws to global mass incarceration
  •  Documenting the use of drug policies to target marginalised groups such as Indigenous Peoples, people of African descent, and women.
  • Recognising the disproportionate negative effects of prohibition and criminalisation on populations caught in humanitarian crises.

Transforming the global punitive approach to drugs requires changes in the foundational norms and institutions of the international drug control regime, which have been historically centred on prohibition and criminalisation. This includes the reform of the UN drug control conventions and the rebalancing of UN drug control bodies, such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which remain reticent to engage with countries to promote the alternative drug policies at the centre of the High Commissioner’s proposal, including the decriminalisation of drug use and related activities and the need to increase equitable access to harm reduction services, both of which are also central to the UN System Common Position on drugs.

Considering the historical importance of the High Commissioner’s report, we collectively provide the following recommendations:

  • We urge Member States to use the upcoming mid-term review of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration on drugs to rebalance the global approach to drugs by enshrining the protection of human rights, public health, and the principles of equality and non-discrimination as essential objectives of the global drug control system, and by adding an item on the protection of human rights in the agenda of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs.
  • We call on the international community to meaningfully involve civil society organisations and populations directly affected by the ‘war on drugs’, including key populations such as people who use drugs, and people involved in illicit economies, in every stage of drug policy decision-making, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
  •  We urge Member States to initiate a review of the UN drug conventions to allow for a human rights- based approach to legal regulation and repeal the provisions that mandate the abolition of traditional uses of internationally controlled plants and substances.
  • We call on the Human Rights Council to create a mechanism for periodic reporting and development of recommendations on the alignment of human rights with drug policy. This should be through either a periodic mandate for the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report on the human rights impacts of drug policy or the creation of an investigative body or special mandate on drug policy.
  • We welcome the growing body of recommendations by UN human rights mechanisms with regards to the human rights implications of drug policies. We encourage all human rights mechanisms to follow the path opened by the High Commissioner by focusing on how punitive drug policies, including the global drug control regime, can become obstacles in themselves for the full enjoyment of human rights.
  • We call on drug control bodies, including the UNODC and the INCB, to integrate the human rights dimension of drug policy in their workplans in a systematic way, to ensure this is reflected in their yearly reports, and to mainstream the findings and standards laid down by the High Commissioner in their cooperation with Member States.
  • We call on the UNODC, Member States, and national drug control bodies to refrain from supporting and funding punitive responses to drugs, and ensure that any financial and technical assistance provided to third countries for drug law enforcement operations does not contribute, or carries a real risk of contributing, to the commission of human rights violations.
  • We call on UN agencies and the international community actors in health and protection services to integrate harm reduction services within the humanitarian response framework.
  • We urge UN agencies with relevant mandates to follow the example of the High Commissioner for Human Rights by ending the taboo on the responsible regulation of drugs, and to provide evidence, recommendations, and international standards on legally regulated markets aligned with the UN values of promoting health, human rights, and development.

List of signatory organisations:

  1. Aboriginal Drug & Alcohol Council, Australia
  2. Addiction Medicine Association of Malaysia (AMAM), Malaysia
  3. Alliance Nationale Des Communautés Pour La Santé (ANCS), Senegal
  4. Amnesty International, Global
  5. Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice, Russia
  6. Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN), Malaysia
  7. APCOM Foundation, Asia and the Pacific
  8. Asia Pacific Network of People living with HIV (APN+), Thailand
  9. Asociación Costarricense para el Estudio e Intervención en Drogas (ACEID), Costa Rica
  10. Associação Brasileira de Estudos Multidisciplinares sobre Drogas (ABRAMD), Brazil
  11. AssociaçãoBrasileiradeLésbicas,Gays,Bissexuais, Travestis, Transexuais e Intersex (ABGLT), Brazil
  12. AssociaçãoBrasileiradeSaúdeMental(ABRASME), Brazil
  13. AssociaçãoElasExistem-MulheresEncarceradas, Brazil
  14. Black Initiative for a New Drug Policy, Brazil
  15. BrasilianNetworkofHarmReductionandHuman Rights (REDUC), Brazil
  16. Brazilian Drug Policy Platform, Brazil
  17. Brussels Federation of Institutions for Drug and Addictions (féda bxl), Belgium
  18. Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Canada
  19. Centero de Investigación Drogas y Derechos Humanos (CIDDH), Peru
  20. CentreforResearchandInformationonSubstance Abuse (CRISA), Nigeria
  21. CentreofExcellenceforResearchinAIDS(CERIA), Malaysia
  22. CentreonDrugPolicyEvaluation(CDPE),Canada
  23. CentrodeEstudiosLegalesySociales(CELS), Argentina
  24. Centro de Pensamiento desde la Amazonia Colombiana AlaOrillaDelRío, Colombia
  25. Centro de Referência sobre Drogas e Vulnerabilidades Associadas da UnB, Brazil
  26. Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center (CLRDC), Philippines
  27. CitywideDrugsCrisisCampaign,Ireland
  28. Coletiva Todas Unidas, Brazil
  29. Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, Ecuador
  30. Consumidores Associados Sobrevivem Organizados (CASO), Portugal
  31. Corporación Acción Técnica Social, Colombia
  32. Corporación Feminista Brujas, Colombia
  33. CorporaciónHumanasCentroRegionalde Derechos Humanos y Justicia de Género, Colombia
  34. CorporaciónMujeresLibres,Colombia
  35. Correlation-EuropeanHarmReductionNetwork (C-EHRN), Netherlands
  36. CREA,India/USA
  37. Dejusticia,Colombia
  38. Deliberar, Colombia
  39. Drug Harm Reduction Advocacy Network Nigeria (DHRAN), Nigeria
  40. Drug Policy Alliance, USA
  41. Drug Policy Australia, Australia
  42. Drug Policy Network South East Europe (DPNSEE), Serbia
  43. Društvo AREAL, Slovenia
  44. Elementa DDHH, Colombia/México
  45. EmpowerIndia,India
  46. EqualHealthandRightsAccessAdvocacyInitiative (EHRAAI), Nigeria
  47. EQUISJusticiaparalasMujeres,México
  48. EstonianAssociationofPeopleUsingPsychoactive Substances “LUNEST”, Estonia
  49. EurasianHarmReductionAssociation(EHRA), Lithuania
  50. FamiliasyRetosExtraordinariosAC,México
  1. Federal Council of Psychology, (Conselho Federal de Psicologia), Brazil
  2. Fédération Addiction, France
  3. Foundation Mainline, Netherlands
  4. Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), Philippines
  5. Fundación Dignidad, Ecuador
  6. FundaciónLatinoaméricaReforma,Chile
  7. GayonAlbayLGBTOrg.,Inc.,Philippines
  8. GrupodeAtivistasemTratamentos(GAT), Portugal
  9. Harm Reduction Australia (HRA), Australia
  10. HarmReductionInternational,UnitedKingdom
  11. HealthPovertyAction,Global
  12. HeartThatCaresForBetterHealthOrganization, Nigeria
  13. HelsinkiFoundationforHumanRights,Poland
  14. HepatitisAustralia,Australia
  15. HIVLegalNetwork/RéseaujuridiqueVIH,Canada
  16. HouseOfRainbowCIC,UnitedKingdom
  17. Humaaniapäihdepolitiikkaary,Finland
  18. IDUCARE,Philippines
  19. IndiaHIV/AIDSAlliance,India
  20. IndianDrugUsers’Forum,India
  21. InstituteofPoliticsandGovernance(IPG),Inc., Philippines
  22. InstitutoRIA,AC,Mexico
  23. InstitutoTerra,TrabalhoeCidadania(ITTC),Brazil
  24. IntercambiosCivilAssociation,Argentina
  25. InternationalAIDSSociety,Switzerland
  26. InternationalCenterforEthnobotanicalEducation, Research and Service (ICEERS), Spain
  27. InternationalCommissionofJurists,Switzerland
  28. InternationalDrugLawAdvocacyandResource Center, USA
  29. InternationalDrugPolicyConsortium(IDPC), Global
  30. InternationalNetworkofPeoplewhoUseDrugs (INPUD), Global
  31. International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW), Malaysia
  32. Kaleidos – Universidad de Cuenca, Ecuador
  33. La Società della Ragione Onlus, Italy
  34. Law Enforcement Action Partnership, USA
  35. Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Masyarakat (LBHM), Indonesia
  36. MalaysianAIDSCouncil,Malaysia
  37. ManipurUsersCollective,India
  38. Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia A.C., Mexico
  39. Middle East and North Africa Network of People Who Use Drugs (MENANPUD)
  40. MujeresUnidasporlaLibertadMéxico,A.C, Mexico
  41. NationalNetworkOfAnti-ProhibitionistFeminists, Brazil
  42. NetworkofAsianPeoplewhoUseDrugs(NAPUD), Thailand
  43. NGOCannabisInstitutePelagonija,Prilep,North Macedonia
  44. NigeriaNetworkofPeoplewhousedrugs (NNPUD), Nigeria
  45. NoBoxTransitionsFoundationInc.(NoBox Philippines), Philippines
  46. NZDrugFoundation,NewZealand
  47. ObservatorioDeDerechosHumanosParaGrupos Vulnerabilizados (ODHGV), Republica Dominicana
  48. OpenSocietyFoundations,Global
  49. OrganisationforthePreventionofIntense Suffering (OPIS), Switzerland
  50. Ozone Foundation, Thailand
  51. Paroles Autour de la Santé et de Environment, Ivory Coast
  52. Penal Reform International (PRI), Global
  53. Pengasih Malaysia, Malaysia
  54. Penington Institute, Australia
  55. Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), Philippines
  56. POS Foundation, Ghana
  57. PREKURSOR Foundation for Social Policy, Poland
  58. Recovering Nepal, National Federation of PUD and Drug Service Organization, Nepal
  59. Red Internacional de Mujeres Familiares de personas privadas de la Libertad (RIMUF), Global
  60. Red Latinoamericana de Mujeres Libertarias Fundiendo Rejas, Latin America
  61. Redes da Maré, Brazil
  62. Release, United Kingdom
  63. Released Malta, Malta
  64. RESET – Drug Policy and Human Rights, Argentina
  65. Responsabilité Espoir Vie Solidarité (REVS PLUS), Burkina Faso
  66. Rights Reporter Foundation (RRF), Hungary
  67. SANANIM, Czech Republic
  68. Sexual Rights Initiative, Switzerland
  69. Sikkim Drug Users Forum (SDUF), India
  70. Skoun Lebanese Addictions Center, Lebanon
  71. Steps Non Profit, Greece
  72. Stop Overdose Now Foundation, Netherlands
  73., USA
  74. StreetLawPh, Philippines
  75. TB HIV Care NPC, South Africa
  76. Transform Drug Policy Foundation, United Kingdom
  77. Transformative Justice Collective, Singapore
  78. Transnational Institute, Netherlands
  79. Uniting NSW, Australia
  80. Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), USA
  81. Women and Harm Reduction International Network (WHRIN), Indonesia
  82. World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Global
  83. Youth RISE, Global