On 21 October 2018, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), of which PRI is a member, published a new report evaluating the impacts of drug policies across the world over the past decade, since the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action declared its goal of a ‘drug-free world’. In this blog, PRI’s Policy and Programme Manager Olivia Rope reflects on the serious impacts this unachievable and harmful goal has had on criminal justice systems.
In 2009, the international community agreed to work towards a ‘drug-free world’, which resulted in policies being brought in at the national and community level involving harsh law-enforcement, criminalisation of people who are using or dealing drugs, and even the ‘wars on drugs’, which has led to the death of thousands of people. In fact, a new report published this week by the International Drug Policy Consortium, Taking stock: A decade of drug policy – A civil society shadow report, which reviews a decade of drug policy since 2009, shows that governments have not only failed to achieve the targets and commitments made in 2009 but in many cases have brought in counter-productive policies that have directly or indirectly resulted in human rights violations.
The report covers a whole host of violations and, in this blog, I will highlight those that relate to people who are caught up in criminal justice systems. I write at a time when we are facing an unprecedented crisis with prison overcrowding, increasing prison populations, and more and more vulnerable and poor people ending up in conflict with the law – because of drug control.
Excessive and disproportionate sentences for people convicted of minor drug-related offences, such as use or small-scale trafficking/dealing in drugs, violate the right to liberty. While there have been some moves towards more proportionate regimes (e.g. 26 countries have adopted a model of decriminalisation to facilitate access to health services and to reduce prison overcrowding), the statistics speak for themselves: one in five prisoners globally is in prison for drug offences, with 83 per cent of those being there for drug possession for personal use.
Mandatory sentences for drug offences, including the imposition of life imprisonment, have unashamedly driven prison populations up.
‘The sheer number of people incarcerated for drug offences, as well as the proportion of people held in pre-trial detention for drug crimes, have contributed to severe prison overcrowding and dire conditions in detention in many parts of the world.’ IDPC report
The impact of drug policies on the right to be free from discrimination based on gender is of particular concern. Women now constitute the fastest growing prison population globally, with drugs being a key driver. In some parts of the world, 80 per cent of women in prison are convicted of drug-related offences, which has a devastating impact not just on women but on their children and families. Pathways to involvement with drugs such as stigmatisation, social exclusion, endemic gender inequality and gender-based violence have been ignored by policymakers and sentencing authorities alike. Alternatives to imprisonment for female minor offenders have proven to be effective but are exceptionally used.
Violations to the right to be free from torture and ill-treatment under the guise of treating drug users is common. Several countries detain people arbitrarily in compulsory, so-called ‘drug rehabilitation centres’ (where there is forced labour and sometimes abusive methods of treatment). Drug use or possession can even attract corporal punishments such as caning, whipping, lashing, flogging, stoning and bodily mutilation.
The ongoing criminalisation of people who use drugs and the stigma associated with it is a significant barrier to the right to health. In prisons, access to harm reduction – a key measure to preventing harms associated with drug use, including the transmission of HIV – is so limited that the prevalence of infectious diseases is two to 10 times higher than in the community. IDPC’s report states that for more than 140 countries, there is still no access to Opium Substitution Therapy in prison settings, an intervention that the UN has recommended as essential to prevent, treat and care for HIV in prison.
The ongoing criminalisation of people who use drugs and the stigma associated with it is a significant barrier to the right to health.
Perhaps at the most extreme level, the right to life has been violated by governments imposing the harshest of sanctions on people convicted of drug-related offences. In international law, the death penalty is prohibited for all but the ‘most serious crimes’, which is limited to intentional killing. However, at least 3,940 people have been executed for a drug offence over the past decade, with 33 jurisdictions retaining the death penalty for drug crimes. Extrajudicial killings have recently escalated in Asia, with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ killing 27,000 people since June 2016.
The impacts of a decade of drug policies under the unattainable goal of a ‘drug-free world’ is grim: more people and communities have suffered than benefited. The International Drug Policy Consortium network, including PRI, is recommending four actions to inform policy making at the international level, so that these human rights violations and ineffective policies do not continue:
- Move away from ‘drug-free world’ targets
- Meaningfully reflect the impacts of drug policies on the UN goals of promoting health, human rights, development, peace and security
- Reflect the realities of drug policies on the ground, both positive and negative
- End punitive approaches and put people and communities first
Without a rights-centred approach to drug policies that protects the most vulnerable and poorest members of our society, prisons (and wider criminal justice systems) will continue to bear the brunt with overcrowding and poor prison conditions.
PRI’s 10-point plan for reforming criminal justice responses to drugs, developed in partnership with the IDPC, acts as a guide for countries interested in moving away from solely punitive responses to drugs and towards developing health and human rights-based approaches. PRI’s briefing on the unintended negative consequences of the ‘war on drugs’ discusses the consequences in detail and sets out what parliamentarians can do.