War on drugs: the unintended toll

When one considers that around 284 million people use drugs worldwide, a threat-based narrative equating all drug use with abuse and crime is somewhat problematic to comprehend.

Kim, Daniel, Colin, Richmond, Therese, Christopher, Sandra, Chrystal, Dylan, Mason: these are just the very few names that made it to the media. These are the shattered lives and silenced cries caused by a retributive criminal justice system still considering drug use and problematic drug use as a security threat and a criminal offence. A person who uses drugs is frequently labelled as an addict, as being untrustworthy, harbouring questionable morals, and therefore in need to be locked up and segregated from the rest of society.  People who use drugs have been frequently accused of normalising deviant behaviour and of promoting a lazy life dedicated to debauchery and crime. At other times, people who use drugs have been considered as weak and sick patients caught in a cobweb of drug abuse, criminality, and broken family ties.

When one considers that the UN World Drug Report for 2022 estimates that around 284 million people use drugs worldwide, a threat-based narrative equating all drug use with abuse and crime is somewhat problematic to comprehend.

Are all these people criminals, or sick patients in need of being locked up in prison or enrolled in abstinence only treatment options? Could we really speak about human rights and drug use within the same sentence? Why should society care if a person dies after ingesting an illicit substance such as XTC or Cocaine? After all, this was a personal decision, and a bad one for all that matters! So why care?

This moralised, securitised, and unilateral lens how to analyse, discuss and address a social phenomenon such as recreational drug use continues to create a dystopic reality and human rights risk environment for alternatively law-abiding citizens. Furthermore, it also contributes to exacerbate health, social, economic, and legal problems for already vulnerable and marginalised communities.

Speaking at the 66th Session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Volker Türk, observed that drug crime is one of the chief reasons that well over two million people are currently in prisons and other facilities of detention. He highlighted how decades of punitive, ‘war on drugs’ strategies have failed to prevent an increasing range and quantity of substances produced and consumed. The High Commissioner recognised that the ‘war on drugs’ paradigm is detrimental to public health. Fear of arrest and widespread stigma around drug use prevent people who use drugs from accessing healthcare, harm reduction services, and effective voluntary treatment programmes. The High Commissioner called on world leaders and decision makers to focus national policy on transformative change, crafting drug policies which are based on evidence, which put human rights at their centre, which are gender-sensitive, and which ultimately improve the lives of the millions of individuals affected.

The situation in Malta

In Malta, the legislative changes in 2015 – the Drug Dependence (Treatment not Imprisonment) Act, depenalising small amounts of drugs for personal use –  has been significant to spare thousands of people the trauma of facing costly and lengthy court cases. The National Report on the Drug situation in Malta highlights that, in 2021, there were a total of 256 arraignments in court for drug related offences. Most drug-related arraignments in 2021 involved cannabis, accounting for 153 arraignments, and out of these the majority remain for possession charges. In 2022, Parliamentary Question 228 asking for demographic information on prisoners currently locked up in the Corradino Correctional facility highlighted that, out of 603 prisoners, 126 are there for drug related charges.

One may applaud a marked decrease of court arraignments from previous years (decreased by 41% when 2021 is compared to 2017), yet one cannot fail to notice and express concern at the still elevated number of people facing criminal charges for drug-related offences.

If one does a simple addition and subtraction exercise, maybe taking as a sample a 20-year time frame, one cannot fail to notice the thousands of lives shattered by unnecessary brushes with the law, and socio-economic opportunities lost due to tainted criminal records. One might try to hypothesise and quantify lawyer and court fees, and the socio-economic impact decades of punitive drug policies have had on certain people and groups in society. This might be a task impossible to compute, especially due to a lacuna of socially inspired qualitative research projects looking into the unintended negative consequences of arrest and incarceration, and recommendations to prevent risks emanating from the law.

The missing human rights component

Transforming feeble cries by those negatively impacted by the war on drugs into empowering roars of human rights action should be at the helm of our collective approach addressing drug supply and demand reduction measures. By human rights action one does not mean the unlimited right to use drugs, but rather the establishment of environmental and institutional frameworks respecting and upholding the fundamental rights and freedoms of every human being, irrespective if using an illegal or legal substance.

As prescribed in the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy and echoed more recently in the Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, three key recommendations for States and relevant stakeholders for effective drug policy include:

(a) Adopt alternatives to criminalisation, “zero tolerance”, and elimination of drugs, by considering decriminalisation of usage; and take control of illegal drug markets through responsible regulation, to eliminate profits from illegal trafficking, criminality, and violence;

(b) In the case of decriminalisation, review convictions and/or sentences and, where appropriate, quash, commute, or reduce convictions and/or sentences;

(c) Consider developing a regulatory system for legal access to all controlled substances;

As we are close to celebrating the beginning of a New Year, join me for one minute of silence as a sign of respect for all the victims of the war on drugs, and as a collective call to move towards humane and restorative drug policy reform.

Read more about human rights and drug policy by visiting these links:

https://www.undp.org/publications/international-guidelines-human-rights-and-drug-policy

https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/09/end-overreliance-punitive-measures-address-drugs-problem-un-report

https://anyoneschild.org

https://www.tni.org/en/publication/the-unintended-negative-consequences-of-the-war-on-drugs

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