What drug-related policies have been adopted around the world? Find out more about the debate taking place at the United Nations

How countries have been addressing the issue of drugs around the world based on the 67th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs

The UN building on the occasion of the 67th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, on Friday, 15 March 2024, in Vienna, Austria. - 20240315_PD2326 (Photo by EVA MANHART / APA-PictureDesk / APA-PictureDesk via AFP) The UN building on the occasion of the 67th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, on Friday, 15 March 2024, in Vienna, Austria. - 20240315_PD2326 (Photo by EVA MANHART / APA-PictureDesk / APA-PictureDesk via AFP)

In 2024, worldwide drugs policies have seen some advances in terms of human rights, but the journey is still a long one as different nations are at varying points in the debate.

While some countries or territories have already legalised or regulated the use and cultivation of marijuana and decriminalised the personal consumption of this and other drugs, as well as improving health services and harm reduction efforts, others still resort to harsh repression and even the death penalty to deal with the issue.

Harm reduction is a public health strategy aimed at controlling the adverse consequences of psychoactive substance use without necessarily requiring abstinence, by seeking social inclusion and citizenship for people who use drugs. Measures like these are already a reality in some European countries and parts of the United States.

In Portugal, for example, there is a policy that removes the user from the justice system and places them under the jurisdiction of public health services, with harm reduction actions that have yielded positive results, such as providing supervised drug consumption rooms. 

Meanwhile, Indonesia still has a hard-line approach to drug control. Individuals who use drugs have little access to healthcare policies and many are arrested. Meanwhile the illegal market thrives.

According to the 2022 Amnesty International report, the death penalty is employed in some countries: drug-related crimes accounted for 225 executions in Iran; 57 in Saudi Arabia and 11 in Singapore.

At the same time, we are witnessing the emergence of highly efficient trafficking networks, a record supply of drugs and a significant deficit in healthcare services, with adequate treatment available for only one in every five people with drug-related issues.

The latest discussions at the UN

The disparity between the countries’ approaches was notable during the 67th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the United Nation´s (UN) principal policymaking body on drugs, which was held in Vienna from March 14 to 22.

At the opening of the event, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, explicitly declared the failure of the “war on drugs” to save lives and protect the dignity, health, and future of 296 million users worldwide. He stated that while it is true that drugs “kill and destroy lives and communities,” so do “oppressive and regressive drug policies.” He spoke out about the overcrowding of prisons that has resulted from these policies. 

“This stance was criticised by some delegations, such as Russia, which still maintains a completely anti-drug discourse.” Said Roberta Marina, Projects Advisor on Conectas Human Rights´ Institutional Violence Programme, who participated in the meeting in Vienna. “Nevertheless, the message from the High Commissioner was very symbolic. He emphasised how the organization has viewed the issue and steered the debate towards the adoption of policies that respect human rights.”

The tone of the discussion is in alignment with the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policies. This document was published in 2019 by a coalition of member states, UN bodies, and human rights experts. It presents proposals for governments to develop drug policies—on matters ranging from cultivation to consumption—in accordance with human rights. It covers a variety of policy areas, from criminal justice to public health.

“In this session of the Commission, the recognition of harm reduction as an innovative approach to caring for people who use drugs was also significant. It’s a victory for the field and is the result of collaborative efforts.” Said Roberta.

At the end of the session of the Narcotics Commission, resolutions were adopted covering topics such as rehabilitation and recovery management programmes, improvements in access to and availability of controlled substances for medical purposes and the prevention of and response to drug overdose. “For the adoption of this resolution, the debate was more closely aligned with the area of health than security, as it should be.” Said Roberta.

Decriminalisation on the agenda

The decriminalisation of personal drug use was also discussed at the UN Narcotics Commission. It is worth noting that decriminalisation does not mean legalisation, but rather that individuals who use drugs are not criminally prosecuted and imprisoned, and are subject to administrative sanctions only.

About 30 countries worldwide have decriminalised the possession of one or more drugs for personal use, without the measure leading to a significant increase or decrease in the consumption of these substances, according to reporting in the newspaper, Folha de São Paulo.

The decriminalisation models that exist around the world differ in some aspects. The most crucial of these is the presence or absence of objective criteria to distinguish between users and traffickers. The more liberal the limits, the fewer users are criminalised. Potentially, more users are prosecuted and imprisoned when the criteria are stricter. 

The lack of this differentiation criterion is one of the main criticisms of the current drug policy in Brazil, and has been under discussion in the Supreme Federal Court (STF) for years.

In practice, individuals detained with the same quantity of drugs can meet with very different fates. In Brazil, most people are imprisoned under The Drug Law and black people make up 68% of the defendants prosecuted for trafficking, according to data from the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea) published last year.

The legalisation of marijuana

At the beginning of April, Germany joined the small group of countries that have legalised the recreational use of marijuana. The government pledged a campaign on the risks of consumption, stressing that cannabis is only for those over 18 years old and that its use is prohibited within 100 metres of schools, nurseries, and children’s playgrounds.

In the European Union (EU), Malta was the first country to legalise recreational use in 2021, followed by Luxembourg in 2023. In the rest of the world, Uruguay legalised in 2013, Canada in 2018 and in the US, each state has been adopting its own rules since 2012. 

The authorisation of cannabis use for medicinal purposes is much more common and is in effect in around 50 countries. Israel, for example, has established a framework to stimulate research and production of medical cannabis and the sector has been regulated to resemble the traditional pharmaceutical industry.

In Brazil, patients with prescriptions for medicinal cannabis can already obtain authorised medications and derivatives directly from pharmacies and drugstores, and can import cannabis products manufactured in other countries. Production and cultivation have not yet been legalised.

The complex situation in Brazil

“In Brazil, the response to drugs is still forced hospitalisation, incarceration, and death.” Said Roberta from Conectas. Although there is a history in the country of implementing harm reduction actions, most of them are currently coordinated by civil society organizations and collectives working directly with drug users.

In the second year of their mandate, the Federal Government has shown support for a perspective that encompasses human rights in drug policy, repositioning Brazil in the global debate on the issue. The country attended the 2024 session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs with a delegation led by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security through the Secretariat for Drug Policies and Asset Management (SENAD), and promoted parallel events addressing trafficking in the Amazon region and the concept of alternative development prioritising perspectives of gender, ethnicity and race.

In the next few days the Senate is set to vote on a proposal that includes the criminalisation of carrying and being in possession of any quantity of drugs. The Proposed Constitutional Amendment (PEC) is in response to the STF (Supreme Court) who have resumed the trial on the decriminalisation of marijuana. Ministers are analysing the constitutionality of article 28 of the Drugs Law, which defines the status of user and differentiates between them and a trafficker in terms of accountability.

According to Roberta, from Conectas, “there is significant internal fragmentation, because, while there is this repositioning on the international arena and although the judiciary has been discussing the issue across different departments, the legislature wants to criminalise drug possession in the Constitution.” In other words, unfortunately, effective change in drug policy in the country is still not on the horizon.

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