The United Nations' leading health agency, the World Health Organization, has called on countries around the world to end the criminalisation of people who use drugs. The call was made in a report published this month that looked at policy responses for dealing with HIV among key populations – men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, people in prisons and other closed settings, sex workers and transgender people. The WHO's unambiguous recommendation is clearly grounded in concerns for public health and human rights. Whilst the call is made in the context of the policy response to HIV specifically, it clearly has broader ramifications, specifically including drug use other than injecting.
In the report, the WHO says:
- “Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize injection and other use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration.
- Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize the use of clean needles and syringes (and that permit NSPs[needle and syringe programs]) and that legalize OST [opiate substitution treatment] for people who are opioid-dependent.
- Countries should ban compulsory treatment for people who use and/or inject drugs ”
The report also highlights Portugal's success in decriminalising personal drug possession and treating drug use as a health, rather than a criminal justice, issue. (You can find out more about this approach here.)
This is perhaps the clearest call for such far-reaching reform from within the UN community.
The executive director of UNAIDS has also made similar statements in the past. Here he is (on the left) agreeing to a resolution calling for decriminalisation at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna in 2010:
This latest call from a UN agency is likely to have been informed by recommendations made in 2012 by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law (pdf), an independent body convened by the United Nations Development Programme and UNAIDS to explore the discrimination experienced by people living with HIV. The Commission's final report contained the folowing statement:
“Reform approaches towards drug use. Rather than punishing people who use drugs but do no harm to others, governments must offer them access to effective HIV and health services, including harm reduction programmes and voluntary, evidence-based treatment for drug dependence”
The growing chorus of UN voices calling for the same progressive drug policy reform offers some hope that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the body that oversees the current international drug control regime, will adopt a similarly pragmatic and humane approach to dealing with people who use drugs. Ending criminalisation remains something that the UNODC has hinted at but so far never called for as explicitly as their UN colleagues. Given that the WHO, UNAIDS and UNODC share responsibility for HIV policy, it is surely only a matter of time.
For more on decriminalisation, what it means, who is doing it, why, and how, see this chapter written by Transform's Steve Rolles, and Niamh Eastwood from Release, in the HRI Global State of Harm Reduction 2012 report.