National drug policies that result in imprisonment of people who use drugs and those involved in illegal drug markets continue to be a major contributing factor to prison overcrowding globally (see Imprisonment and prison overcrowding). For decades, punitive drug laws that impose disproportionate criminal sanctions have led to the imprisonment of millions of people worldwide for drug offences. Today, it is estimated that 2.2 million people worldwide are in prison for drug offences, of which 22% (470,000 people) have been imprisoned for drug possession for personal use. Additionally, across seven East and Southeast Asian countries between 440,000 and 500,000 people who use drugs (and unknown numbers elsewhere) are subject to civil or administrative detention because of their personal drug use.
A new Global Drug Policy Index launched in 2021 ranks 30 countries based on the extent to which their drug policies and their implementation align with the 2018 UN System Common Position on drugs. The countries with the highest rankings overall are Norway, New Zealand, and Portugal, while the lowest are Brazil, Uganda, and Indonesia. In relation to proportionality and criminal justice, however, Kenya ranks the lowest of the countries included, followed by Uganda, Mozambique, Brazil, and Argentina all of which rely on imprisonment for non-violent drug-related offences ‘to a very large extent’, score low on access to alternatives to arrest, prosecution, conviction and/or punishment for drug activities, and apply mandatory minimum sentences for a first drug offence. The Index reports on the continued impacts of drug control on women in all Latin American countries it assessed as well as in Kenya, India, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa and Uganda.
Over the past year, various UN bodies joined calls for reform of national drug policies with heavy criticism aimed at the overuse of detention for some drug offences. The first-ever UN System Common Position on Incarceration underscored the impact of imprisonment for drug-related offences, committing the UN system to support reform efforts. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a landmark study on arbitrary detention and drug polices with recommendations on proportionate sentencing for drug-related offences and calls for the decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use. Decriminalisation was also called for by UNAIDS in the new Global AIDS Strategy for 2021 – 2026.
Over 50 jurisdictions in more than 30 countries have removed criminal sanctions for drug possession for personal use.
Over 50 jurisdictions in more than 30 countries have removed criminal sanctions for drug possession for personal use, albeit with significant differences in approach and levels of effectiveness. Recent moves towards decriminalisation have been made in Norway, Iceland, Finland, Canada (at the local level), and in the US state of New Jersey. Although drug use and possession for personal use have remained as a criminal offence in Thailand, recent law changes foresee greater use of non-custodial sanctions and reduced penalties in some cases in an effort to reduce the prison population of which 80% are held for drug offences.
Elsewhere in Asia, punitive approaches to drug control persist including the use of the death penalty for drug offences in Singapore and Vietnam (see Death penalty), as well as overuse of imprisonment leading to high levels of overcrowding. In Indonesia, where prisons are operating at more than double their capacity, over half of the prison population totalling some 133,000 people are in prison for drug offences, and 63% of people in prison in Malaysia are there for low-level drug offences.