The UNODC just called for decriminalisation again (and nine other UN agencies did too)

Last month saw a media storm around the UNODC document calling for decriminalisation of people who use drugs. It was due to be released at the HRI conference in Malaysia, but was withdrawn at the last moment, apparently due to pressure from member states - only for the media, who had embargoed copies, to release it anyway - the story was propelled onto the front pages by Richard Branson's involvement.

It was certainly an important document, and looking likely to be (re)released soon, albeit with some edits. But a new UN publication, ‘Technical brief: HIV and young people who inject drugs’, released last week with little fanfare, once again makes a clear call for ending the criminalisation of people who use drugs. It is backed by no less than 10 UN agencies: The WHO, UNFPA, UNHCR, the World Bank, UNDP, UNESCO, UNAIDS, the ILO, and even UNICEF.


Crucially, it is also endorsed by UNODC - which holds joint responsibility for the UN's HIV response with the WHO and UNAIDS.  One of the report's key recommendations, which could hardly be clearer, is a call on member states to:

Work for the decriminalization of drug use, and for the implementation and enforcement of anti-discrimination and protective laws, based on human-rights standards, to eliminate stigma, discrimination, social exclusion and violence against young people who inject drugs based on actual or presumed behaviours and HIV status.”

The rationale for this call is in provided in the main body of the report:

“Laws criminalizing use or possession of drugs or of injecting equipment can deter people from seeking services because of their fear of arrest and prosecution. These laws may deter harm-reduction service-providers from offering assistance including because of concerns about their own legal liability.Criminalization of drug use also reduces the future employment prospects of those who have been convicted and can lead to financial instability.”

It is a bold, important, pragmatic and evidence-based report, and huge kudos is due to the authors, UN agencies and collaborating NGOs including INPUD and the NSWP. It demonstrates precisely the sort of collective leadership and guidance on a difficult and sensitive subject that we would hope to see from the UN.

Given its striking recommendations, which include not just decriminalisation, but the provision of clean needles and opiate substitution treatment for children, it’s surprising it hasn’t generated controversy in the usual reactionary media outlets (perhaps they haven’t seen it yet). 

But, as this previous blog explains, whilst the content of the retracted UNODC document was particularly significant, the UNODC had almost called for decriminalisation in the past. It's also important to note that key UN agencies – including the UNDP, UNAIDS, UN Women, and the WHO, as well as Ban Ki moon – had already endorsed decriminalisation.

But until the more comprehensive retracted UNODC paper is re-released, this is the only unambiguous UNODC call for member states to ‘work for the decriminalization of drug use’ so far in the public domain. The wider family of UN agencies is now united behind the call for decriminalisation. On this issue at least, ‘system wide coherence’ has been achieved. The momentum towards decriminalisation is starting to look unstoppable – and about time too.