The United Nations experts are underscoring the urgency for a substantial change in the international approach towards drug policies.
The experts argue that the ongoing ‘war on drugs‘, in its existing form, serves more as a ‘war on people’, hitting hardest those already at the margins of society.
These marginalized communities include people living in poverty, racial and ethnic minorities, and Indigenous Peoples.
Their exposure to the harsh punitive measures and the cascading negative impacts are disproportionately higher compared to other groups.
The UN advocates for a comprehensive policy shift from an overly punitive approach to one that focuses on health and human rights.
This transformative change would centre on providing support and reducing the stigmatization of drug users, rather than punishing them.
The Gender and Racial Disparities in Drug Policies
The United Nations statement also shines a harsh light on the realities faced by women and people of African descent under current drug policies.
Women who use drugs face overwhelming stigma and discrimination, particularly when attempting to access harm reduction programs, drug dependence treatment, and even basic healthcare.
They are underrepresented in treatment programs and are overly represented in prison populations globally. Meanwhile, people of African descent experience a markedly harsh law enforcement response.
They are subjected to an excessive number of law enforcement interventions, arrests, and incarcerations for drug-related offenses, all of which stem from systemic racial bias.
Widespread racial profiling remains a bleak reality, and access to evidence-based treatment and harm reduction is worryingly low for these communities. The United Nations strongly condemns these disproportionate impacts and calls for an immediate end to such discriminatory practices.
International Law Violations and Treatment Inadequacies
Furthering the issues highlighted in their statement, the United Nations experts criticize the continued implementation of the death penalty for drug-related offenses, a practice which clearly violates international law.
According to international norms, the death penalty should only be applied to the ‘most serious crimes’, typically crimes involving intentional killing.
Drug-related offenses do not meet this threshold, and yet, they are still punishable by death in over 30 countries.
This is a pressing concern that raises questions about widespread human rights violations and the discriminatory impact on minority communities. Alongside this, the statement brings attention to the inadequate access to treatment and harm reduction services.
As per UN data, only one in eight people with drug dependence have access to appropriate treatment, and coverage for harm reduction services remains disconcertingly low.
This underscores the urgent need to ramp up these services and ensure they are easily accessible.
Reimagining Drug Policy: The Path Forward
In light of these urgent issues, the UN statement calls for a radical policy change – the decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use.
The experts advocate for replacing compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centres with voluntary, evidence-informed, and rights-based health and social services in the community.
The United Nations is urging the creation of drug policies based on a comprehensive, restorative, and reintegrative justice approach.
This involves moving away from punishing individuals for drug use, and instead, promoting supportive policies that respect, protect, and fulfil the rights of all.
The call is for Member States and international bodies to ground their drug policy responses in international human rights law and standards, ensuring that these policies are gender-responsive, uphold human rights, and actively protect fundamental freedoms.
This restorative approach is not merely beneficial but essential for fostering a more equitable and just society.