Who are we Really Protecting?

If we are to address the issue of meaningful youth participation in the design of drug policy and programming/implementation of health services, using a peer-to-peer model is effective for training & capacity-building needs in youth advocacy endeavours within this realm. Youth advocates need collective, self-reflective inquiry in order to engage in creating solutions for their own social situations. This document is designed as an international advocacy tool to foster and co-ordinate better systems of support for youth-led advocacy involvement at national, regional, and international levels.

The objectives of this statement is to:

  • Formalise best practices for young people to receive quality services and education that are youth centred and harm reduction based;
  • Encourage countries to think and therefore strategise differently about how to engage young people on how to protect themselves from the harms associated with drug use, and
  • Foster systems of support for youth leadership within the drug policy/harm reduction movement.

Considerations when protecting children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs

In many countries, measures to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drug are limited to zero-tolerance and ”just say no” campaigns, random school drug testing and subsequent exclusion, coercive abstinence based treatment, mass incarceration of parents, siblings and youth, and the denial of harm reduction services based solely on arbitrary age restrictions. Appropriate measures to protect children? Not in our view.

We can only answer this fundamental question by looking at other articles of the Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC), carefully, honestly, and without lazy and selective interpretations. What is ”appropriate” must take into account the right to life, health, education, social security and an adequate standard of living, to access to information, to freedom of expression and to privacy, and to freedom from discrimination, violence and neglect, from cruel inhuman and degrading treatment, economic exploitation and from arbitrary detention.

These are not aspirations. This is binding international law. But the CRC goes further still. The four ‘General Principles’ of the CRC underpin the entire convention and guide not just the kinds of questions we need to ask, but how we should ask them. As you can see they are utilised throughout the guide in explaining how the conventions are in aligned with good youth participation in a drug policy context.

Access to Information, Services and Education

Young people cannot begin to advocate for others until the advocate for themselves!

UN Conventions on the Rights of a Child: Article 6The right to life, survival and development.

Rarely, if ever, does a child experience the violation of only a single right. Rather, one situation compounds another; one violation makes another all the more severe. This is the essence of a holistic approach to child rights and to drug use among children and young people. This General Principle requires that we consider the physical, social, emotional and social development of the child. We must consider how drug use affects the rights of the child, but also, how rights violations affect drug use and increase vulnerability to drug related harm.


  • WHO, UNODC, UNAIDS, UNICEF: To develop clear guidance on young people and drug treatment services for service & healthcare providers.
  • Consultation with youth led organisations, and programs sharing best practice on youth centred drug treatment services should be done. These programs should promote youth- centred harm Services for young people that provide services such as peer groups, OST, syringe exchange access, HIV testing, etc. The programs take into consideration youth culture and personal experiences that have influenced a young person’s drug use. UNODC, Countries – There is a lack of desegregated data by age, gender and region on drug use and drug treatment admissions for young people. There must be better coordination of strategic information.

Youth Meaningful Participation

Policy that does not consider the people who are most affected will never be effective!

UN Conventions on the Rights of a Child: Article 2Non-discrimination.

The right to be free from discrimination does not end with governments refraining from discriminating against certain groups and individuals, including people who use drugs. States must also work to actively identify vulnerable groups and individuals in need of special attention to ensure that their rights are guaranteed. This must include girls, street children, children of drug users, children who use drugs, child sex workers, indigenous and ethnic minority children, and children living with HIV. Achieving this goal requires properly desegregated data. It is not enough to ask how many children use drugs, or how many children are incarcerated for drug offences, how many children are living on the streets or how many are living with HIV. We need to know which children. In very few places is this information being collected. It means we that we are not properly looking at patterns of vulnerability.

UN Conventions on the Rights of a Child: Article 12The right to be heard and have our views taken into account.

When it was adopted twenty years ago, the CRC represented a radical departure from the traditional view of children and youth. How do you ask the right questions? By asking those affected what we should be looking at. How do you get the right answers? By asking the right people. How do you know what is in a child’s best interests? Why not ask? Children and young people have the right to be consulted in the decisions that affect them, individually, and collectively, and they have the right to participate in the development of youth-focused programs.


  • Moving past tokenism: Often when youth are invited to meetings, conferences or to give input on policies and programmes, it is simply because it “looks good” to have a youth representative or because a guideline exists on including young people. However, often no actual feedback from youth participants is expected, welcomed or integrated into the outcomes of the process. This is especially true when a commitment to meaningful youth leadership is lacking or not well understood by other stake-holders. While many in the international community believe that “elders always know best,” this is not always the case, especially when dealing with issues that directly affect young people.[1]
  • Support institutional capacity building and core funding of youth-led organisations, including fund-raising skills. Youth-led initiatives often lack the fund-raising expertise, staff experience and long-term relationship that facilitate sustainability!

Advocacy and Decision Making Process

Young people should be active participants not passive recipients of formation of drug policy and the design of health reduction programs.

UN Convention on the Rights of a Child: Article 3The best interests of the child

The child’s best interests must be “a primary consideration” in all legislation and policies affecting them, either directly or indirectly. We must ask ourselves, honestly, if the child’s best interests (meaning individual children and children collectively) are served through arbitrary age restrictions on access to harm reduction and drug treatment services? Are those interests best served by criminalising young drug users, or requiring parental consent for HIV testing or access to sexual and reproductive health services? Or do these measures reserve political, economic or other interests?


  • UNODC- Include young people in the framework of campaigns . This is currently lacking. UNODC must clarify and build a strong explicit stance on harm reduction for young people that shows the linkages between drugs and its social and health consequences.
  • Commission on Narcotic Drugs – Must encourage and support young people’s endeavours in national delegations. Create network structure within the UNODC Global Youth Network to contact country delegates to create a transparent process when engaging in strategies addressing young people and drugs!

[1] Youth Leadership: Recommendations for Sustainability. World Aids Campaign, Youth RISE.