PRESS RELEASE: Launch of new position paper “Drug Policy and Deprivation of Liberty”

(Stockholm, 13 June 2019)

The Global Commission on Drug Policy today releases Drug Policy and Deprivation of Liberty, a new position paper focusing on the “perfect storm” created by current drug policies, incarceration, prison overcrowding and inadequate health care for people who use drugs. Detention fuels the spread of infectious diseases, exacerbates problems of reintegration, and results in a loss of dignity for millions around the world. The paper is being presented on the margins of the Stockholm Criminology Symposium in Sweden.

Over the past 20 years, prison populations have increased by 122% in Southeast Asia and 175% in South America and in over half the countries in the world, prisons are overcrowded. Current drug laws have contributed to this situation significantly: out of the estimated ten million people incarcerated worldwide, one in five is incarcerated for a drug-related offense – and of these, more than eighty percent for drug possession alone.

“Prison is the most glaring expression of the failures of prohibition-based drug policies,” said Ruth Dreifuss, Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, who received the 2019 Stockholm prize in Criminology on the 11th of June in recognition of the pioneer role Switzerland played, while she was the Minister in charge with public health, in introducing heroin-assisted treatment. “Despite decades of states punishing consumption, the demand for and supply of drugs has not been reduced. Over 60 years of the “war on drugs” have enriched and empowered transnational organized crime. Above all, incarceration is the epitome of the human cost of these failed policies. In our view, deprivation of liberty is the wrong response to drug use.”

Minimum standards for the treatment of people in detention and the protection of their human rights are not guaranteed and differences even within regions are vast. The funds expended per prisoner can serve as a proxy. In Central and Eastern Europe, Czechia spends over 16,000 Euros per prisoner per year while the Russian Federation spends as little as 912 Euros.

“Injecting drug use drives the HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis epidemic in Eastern Europe with rates often 10 or even 40 times higher in prisons than in the general population. In Ukraine for example, more than half of the incarcerated people inject drugs and needles are shared between 4 or more people,” stated Pavel Bém, psychiatrist, former Mayor of Prague and member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. “Preventive measures and those reducing harms are well-known – sterile injection equipment, opioid substitution treatment, antiretroviral treatment – but very few countries provide them in prison – only eight worldwide in the case of needle and syringe programs.”

To remedy this situation causing avoidable suffering for millions, the Global Commission calls on States to end prison overcrowding and to ensure that all inmates, including people who use drugs, receive primary health care at the same level as the general population with special attention to harm reduction measures. All practices that violate human rights of people deprived of liberty must be forbidden. States should end disproportionate sentencing, including the removal of all penalties for drug possession for personal use.