As reported by the BBC, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the agency that has overseen the global drug war for 50 years, has been blocked from announcing its momentous new position – that all countries should decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use. The UNODC was set to unveil the position on Sunday 18th October 2015, at the Harm Reduction International Conference, in a short briefing paper (PDF) which states that: “Member States should consider the implementation of measures to promote the right to health and to reduce prison-overcrowding, including by decriminalising drug use and possession for personal consumption”.
In a devastating critique of the harms caused by criminalisation, the UNODC states: “Protecting public health is a legitimate aim, but imposing criminal sanctions for drug use and possession for personal consumption is neither necessary nor proportionate. On the contrary, punishment aggravates the behavioural, health and social conditions of the affected people.”
However, it appears a member state got wind of the planned announcement, and has prevented or at least delayed the UNODC announcement of its position.
Given its pivotal role in international drug policy, the UNODC’s position is hugely significant. It had previously conceded that decriminalisation was allowed under international law, but had only made more vague nods towards the need for decriminalisation beiong expressed elsewhere in the UN, in technical guidance on teh HIV responses and occassional public statements. But now the UNODC states that it is not just permissible; it is essential, and may even “be required to meet obligations under international human rights law”. The UNODC paper also says that countries which continue to criminalise people who use drugs are in breach of their obligation to respect the universal right to health, because a punitive approach causes unnecessary illness and death.
Going even further, the UNODC also applies the logic behind decriminalisation to the supply side of the drug trade, proposing that: “small drug related offenses, such as drug dealing to maintain personal drug use or to survive in a very marginalized environment … [are cases that] should receive rehabilitation opportunities, social support and care, and not punishment”. The UNODC paper also says that “the state has the burden to justify” why criminalisation is an appropriate response to drug use, while making clear that, in its view, it is not justifiable.
The UNODC has finally caught up with the thinking of other UN agencies, many of which provided overt endorsements of decriminalisation long ago. Indeed, the view that criminalising people who use drugs causes enormous and unnecessary health and social harms is supported by the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the UN Development Programme, UN Women, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as UN officials, both current and former, such as Ban Ki-moon, Kofi Annan, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health.
The UNODC’s statement will help ensure the decriminalisation debate takes centre stage at next year’s UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem, at which the international community will discuss potential options for reforming drug policy. Today’s news has substantially strengthened the hand of those in favour of change. Defenders of the status quo, and member states that continue to criminalise people who use drugs, could find themselves increasingly marginalised at the UN as they continue to defy the overwhelming consensus from health, human rights and legal experts.
This is a turning point in drug policy reform. Since the story broke, the UNODC is now claiming that the briefing is the work of "a middle-ranking official" who was offering a professional viewpoint, rather than an institutional position. But the burden now lies with the UNODC and governments around the world to show that the analysis in this briefing is wrong. To do this they would need to show that criminalising drug use is necessary, proportionate, doesn’t cause ill health, violence and death, and conforms to international obligations towards health and human rights. They can’t, because there is absolutely no evidence to contradict the UNODC's own analysis.