The Importance of the WHO’s Call for Drug Decriminalisation

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Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) called for the decriminalisation of drug use. This is one of the most significant developments in drug policy reform, as the United Nations – the WHO’s parent organisation – was responsible for creating the international laws that form the basis of global drug prohibition.

In 1961, the UN introduced the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (SCND) – formalising a list of substances to be classified as internationally illegal. This half-century-old convention remains the legal backbone of modern drug policy. Unlike typical fact-based UN rhetoric, the Convention includes highly subjective phrasing, including the description of drugs as “evil”. During the next few decades, acceptance of the SCND grew around the world, and eventually prohibition became a significant element of domestic policy in almost every nation.

The WHO report is not specifically about drug policy, but rather it advises nations on the most effective public policies to implement if they wish to prevent and treat the spread of HIV. According to the WHO, “people who inject drugs” and “people in prisons” are two of the key groups at higher risk of HIV infection due to engaging in “higher-risk behaviours”. Prohibition makes it very difficult for drug addicts to access safe and sterile injection methods, while the imprisonment of such individuals puts them at further risk. Essentially, the War on Drugs – which predominantly affects individuals from poorer communities – is partially responsible for spread of HIV.

The WHO made a plethora of policy suggestion to combat this failed health policy, including:

  • Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalise injection and other use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration
  • Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalise the use of clean needles and syringes […] and that legalise [opioid substitution therapy] for people who are opioid-dependent
  • Countries should ban compulsory treatment for people who use and/or inject drugs

In the past, the United Nations has consistently been an obstacle for countries who have sought to reform their drug policy. As recently as last year, the UN denounced the government of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica for deciding to legalise marijuana; deeming the move “illegal” and as being contributory “to the early onset of addiction”. However, Uruguay is pushing on with the legalisation move nonetheless – just as the US states of Colorado and Washington have done. Earlier this month, the former secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, made an impassioned plea to leaders of West African nations to avoid the failed policies of prohibition, so that the region does not “become a new frontline in the failed War on Drugs”.

Considering the current stagnation of international drug law, the United Nations is clearly lagging behind. However, as more countries choose to take their domestic drug policy into their own hands, it is inevitable that the UN must begin making concessions. The WHO’s unconventional rhetoric in this report indicates that the adoption of progressive drug policy is continuing to grow momentum. This may be a sign of the beginning of the end of the War on Drugs, but it will not be a short or easy battle.



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