Commissioners Arbour and ElBaradei in The Guardian: “The campaign for a ‘drug-free world’ is costing lives”

Read original article in The Guardian

Drug control efforts across the world are a threat to human dignity and the right to life.

In 2017, more than 70,000 people died from a drug overdose in the US. Among the reasons for these deaths are the lack of access to health and harm-reduction services, as well as the fear of legal repression, which often dissuades people who use drugs from asking for help.

More than two-thirds of these deaths were linked to opioids. At the same time, millions of people across Africa have been unable to access opioids for pain relief because of decades of fear of these drugs being diverted to the illegal, recreational market, forcing people there to endure – and often die in – serious pain.

In the Philippines, thousands of people have been killed extrajudicially in a brutal anti-drug campaign that began in 2016. And in Colombia, two years after a historic peace agreement, and the promise of better livelihoods, rural communities are braced for a return to crop eradication by aerial spraying with the chemical glyphosate.

These stories reflect just some of the harmful consequences of drug control. But why are these violations still taking place? In several declarations and documents, governments have committed to “respecting, protecting and promoting all human rights, fundamental freedoms and the inherent dignity of all individuals” in the development and implementation of drug policies. What is happening in Colombia, in Africa, in the Philippines and in the US tells us that something is very wrong with this global commitment.

The first problem lies with the founding aspiration of the international drug system: to create a “drug-free society”, which countries have sought to achieve through prohibition, enforced by repression. We believe this is an illusion.

Almost all civilisations and cultures throughout history show evidence of the use of some mind-altering substance or other. Aiming for a “drug-free world” means hoping to eradicate a near-universal human impulse. The result can only be, as we have seen in the past decades, a war whose costs can be counted in the loss of life and dignity of millions of people.

Instead, drug control efforts have taken a harsh toll on the health and human rights of some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people. These policies have stripped our most vulnerable fellow citizens of their basic dignity.

This human rights failure is the product of political choices made of several factors, including fear, moral panic, lack of pressure of public opinion for reform and denial of facts. Unfortunately, in Vienna this month, these same choices will lead the international community to renew the global response to the “world drug problem” based on prohibition and repression.

We know this is preventable and avoidable. The world deserves drug policies that are respectful of human rights and dignity, and more effective at reducing drug-related harm.

The past four UN high commissioners for human rights have repeatedly asked countries to address the violation of fundamental rights in drug control. On 15 March in Vienna, a coalition of UN agencies, human rights experts and a few progressive governments, led by the United Nations Development Programme and the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy at the University of Essex, launched the international guidelines on human rights and drug policy. It provides practical recommendations for better ways for the global community to manage the risks related to the presence of drugs, and restore human dignity to millions of people harmed by decades of drug prohibition.

Several countries have started to usher in reforms based on these principles. These include the decriminalisation of low-level drug offences in at least 26 countries, the use of legal exemptions to enable traditional communities to maintain their sacred relationship with plants in several Latin American and Caribbean nations, and more than 117 safe injection facilities in 11 countriesaround the world.

We challenge the rest of the global community to join them.

Louise Arbour is former high commissioner for human rights. Mohamed ElBaradei is director-general emeritus of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel peace prize laureate. They are both members of theGlobal Commission on Drug Policy