Commissioners Clark and Kazatchkine: “Time for a change in drug policy in Belarus”

This opinion piece was published in Russian. Read original article in KYKY.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries which emerged from it and others nearby, like Belarus, experienced a wave of injecting drug use, which in turn, fueled an epidemic of HIV and hepatitis C. Belarus was exemplary in following evidence-based practices and leading the region, along with Ukraine and Georgia, in implementing effective harm reduction programs, including the provision of methadone to treat opioid dependency.

Belarus would have much to gain in scaling up these services. However, alongside this pragmatic approach to reducing harms associated with drug use, the Belarus government applies tough penalties for drug possession and consumption. The current repressive approach feeds prejudice against people who use drugs and is inconsistent with the harm reduction practices implemented successfully by the country.

The latest bill on drug issues submitted to the Belarusian Parliament maintains a minimum two year prison sentence for drug possession and reaffirms a repressive and stigmatizing approach to drug control policy that adds to the harms created by drugs themselves. As our fellow Global Commissioner and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said: “Drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more.”

The latter statement is particularly relevant in Belarus, where those convicted (often simply for consumption with proof of it coming from compulsory urine tests) can face several years in prison or be forced to work in a penal colony. Little distinction is made for quantities for personal use, often leading to a person possessing a small amount or sharing or buying for a friend being convicted for trafficking. Furthermore, focusing law enforcement efforts aimed at consumers and low-level dealers requires considerable public expenditures – with ultimately no impact on trafficking.

One must wonder how the rule of law is advanced by imprisoning a person who consumes a psychoactive substance and thereby compromises any chance the person may have of leading a balanced and productive life? It also does nothing to address dependency, and prevents people with problematic use from accessing the very health services which Belarus has been so progressive in implementing.

The proposed law before the Belarusian Parliament perpetuates the discrimination to which people who use drugs are subjected, impacting more harshly the poor and already vulnerable populations. For instance: previously, the penalty of having property confiscated could often not be enforced since offenders generally had none; now fines will be imposed that many will find beyond their means – fines that are added to harsh prison sentences.

The most alarming example of pervasive stigmatization is the requirement for people convicted for drug offenses to wear green patches on their prison clothes to identify and distinguish them from other inmates. This recalls the worst hours of societal discrimination and violence against a defined group and highlights the level of institutional stigma people using drugs have to face every day.

The dehumanizing treatment of people convicted for drug offenses – dehumanizing also for those who must enforce the penalties – emphasizes how a misguided perception of drugs and people who use drugs, continues both to validate and be fueled by repression

The only way to end the vicious cycle of stigma and prohibition is to implement a people-centered approach that is more conducive to creating safer and healthier societies. That means ending incarceration for non-violent drug-related crimes. That in turn would allow Belarus to align further its national policies with the international commitments made by the country, including to institute proportionate sentencing for non-violent drug offences as was agreed at the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs.

Moreover, a health- and human rights-based approach to drug policy will contribute to Belarus’ commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – in particular, to SDG 3 which aims to ensure healthy lives with universal access to health care, and SDG 16, which aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies with access to justice for all.

Both the International Narcotics Control Board and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime have stated that decriminalization of use and personal possession is allowed under the current UN Conventions. We hope that Belarus will examine the evidence and pursue reform that favors prevention, support, and treatment and the social integration of people who use drugs. Individuals, communities, and the government would all benefit as a result.

By Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; and Michel Kazatchkine, former Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis, and Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Both are members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.