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According to the OHCHR report, the global drug policy, as it has been implemented, is a failure, which is why it is necessary to change the approach to one that focuses on health and safeguarding human rights. | EFE & Laura Zambrano

Global drug policy: the transition from “crime and punishment” to safeguarding human rights

We were in Geneva at the presentation of the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. One of the recommendations was the responsible and progressive regulation of drug markets.

Por: Diego Zambrano BenavidesOctober 5, 2023

The past wednesday, September 20, 2023, could be considered a historic day for global drug policy. The Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), which has remained relatively silent in these debates, presented in Geneva (Switzerland) its report Human rights challenges in addressing and countering all aspects of the world drug problem 

The guidelines and treaties concerning drug policy in the United Nations system are limited to decisions taken in Vienna Austria, the seat of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime and the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Therefore, other bodies are often reluctant to make statements on the issue, especially if they are closely related to human rights.

In that sense, the OHCHR report is groundbreaking. It is also emphatic in the idea that the war on drugs, as it has been managed, has failed, and that the approach needs to be changed, focusing on health and other human rights.

One of the most striking recommendations of the report, which Dejusticia and 132 organizations from 48 countries (see statement) have supported, is the proposal to achieve the responsible and progressive regulation of drug markets that are currently illegal. Given the obvious global failure of the policy, following this proposal would go a long way towards protecting public health. Indeed, in the Colombian context, regulation is one of the main flagship issues of Gustavo Petro administration and one of the recommendations of the Truth Commission’s Final Report, as obsolete policies in this area are considered a driver for the ongoing armed conflict. 

The report emphasizes that, in the face of the global drug phenomenon, it is necessary to promote the right to health of drug users, ensure equality and non-discrimination, seek alternatives to criminalization, shift from punitive measures, apply the law to drug control with an approach that respects human rights, invest in alternative development, and guarantee the participation of civil society and communities in the discussion and development of public policy.

This report provides an opportunity to explore new ways of looking at the drugs phenomenon at the international level. The results could be seen in the near future, for example, at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which will meet in mid-2024 in Vienna, Austria. 

In a more regional context, during the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs, which was held a few weeks ago in Cali, Colombia, the government of Colombia presented the guidelines of its new drug policy and stressed that, by 2026,   the paradigm will shift “and focus on life and the environment, prioritizing health and well-being, without neglecting the fight against crime.” 

Colombia seeks to lead this paradigm shift globally. For this reason, the Colombian government points to the need to push ahead with the regulation of markets such as adult-use cannabis and the non-psychoactive uses of coca leaf. Furthermore, the new approach to the issue of drugs in the country takes into account the importance of seeking dialogue with communities when implementing policies in the territories.

Findings and recommendations

The OHCHR report presents findings that support the conclusion that criminalization and prohibition have been ineffective, as for decades such dynamics have failed to achieve the goal of a “drug-free society”. 

Colombia has a special mention in the report. The document notes the development of a new drug policy that aims to revert the repressive and security approach, and stresses that the Peace Agreement between the government and FARC-EP expressly includes a chapter dedicated to the “solution to the problem of illicit drugs”. Finally, it refers to the Truth Commission’s Final Report, which recommends shifting toward the regulation of all drugs, the demilitarization of drug policy regarding crops, the establishment of spaces for dialogue on the impact of drug policy and seek ways to include peasants.

Some of the main aspects and recommendations revealed in the report are:

  • The militarization for drug control has been a driver of state violence.
  • Because of its ineffectiveness, the report suggests abolishing the death penalty for drug-related and reviewing sentences that can be reduced.
  • It shows that the disproportionate laws created to address the drug phenomenon contribute to overincarceration and overcrowding in detention centers and prisons.
  • The creation of drug policies should involve communities, especially the marginalized or discriminated sectors, such as Indigenous peoples and afro descendant communities, and ensure a gender-sensitive approach with women.
  • Ensure that the eradication of illicit crops does not adversely affect human and environmental health; avoid aerial spraying due to its obvious damage to the population and the environment.
  • Adopt responsible regulations to eliminate profits from illegal trafficking, criminality and violence.
  • Consider developing a regulatory system for legal access to all controlled substances.
  • Adopt drug policies that recognize and advance the rights of drug users, ensuring access to medical care, ensuring that all treatments are voluntary, consensual and informed.
  • Invest in the alternative development of local communities and secure alternative livelihoods before eradicating illicit crops and removing existing livelihoods. 
  • Ensure that financial and technical assistance provided to carry out anti-drug operations does not result in human rights violations.

The OHCHR report is in line with Dejusticia’s recommendations to the High Commissioner. Our concerns were closely related to mitigating the damage caused by drug policy, such as aerial spraying with glyphosate, the lack of measures to repair affected communities (including the collaboration of states funding such policies). Furthermore, we advocate for a change in the way we measure and evaluate respect for human rights in drug policies, as well as the recognition of marginalized populations, such as the peasantry and people who work in the rural sector, to include them in the development of measures to address the phenomenon.

Our contribution

At Dejusticia we attended the sessions in Geneva to bring the discussions on drug policy to the field of human rights. Indeed, the report presented today by the OHCHR recalls concepts of the International Control Board, which monitors compliance with drug treaties, suggesting that any excessive measures in the implementation of drug policy go against human rights. These contributions are in line with the change of approach proposed in the United Nations General Assembly outcome document (2016) and coincide with the contributions of civil society. For the Colombian case, specifically, below we detail the considerations and concerns contained in the document:  

  1. The eradication of illicit crops through aerial spraying, which is carried out within the framework of the so-called “war on drugs”, led the Colombian State to breach its international human rights obligations, particularly the right to life, access to land, and health and the environment.
  2. In the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS), only 17% of community agreements incorporate a gender perspective, so women feel discrimination when receiving subsidies.
  3. There is no effective accountability in most cases where drug policy causes human rights violations. Similarly, the redress for victims and communities is insufficient.
  4. The current dominant drug control regime is one of the main factors contributing to the prohibitionist paradigm; that is, criminalization as the only response to the drug phenomenon.
  5. Punitive policies related to the drug phenomenon do not take into account the vulnerability of women, who suffer from economic and educational factors, as well as violence and gender stereotypes.

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