UN Health Advisor calls for complete decriminalisation of drugs

by Calum Armstrong


The UN’s special rapporteur on the right to health Dainius Pūras has released an open letter criticizing governments who focus on drug control policies, claiming that criminalisation drives problems underground and puts citizens’ safety in danger.

The Guardian has outlined the letter’s key points in an article that analyses its implications for the UK.

A homeless man in Western Kabul reveals his instruments for smoking opium resin and heroin.

A homeless man in Western Kabul reveals his instruments for smoking opium resin and heroin.

The open letter is addressed to Yury Fedotov, the executive director of the UN office on drugs and crime. It was mentioned in the 58th session of the commission on narcotic drugs in 2015. It will resurface at the UN general assembly special session on the drug problem in 2016, the first time delegates will come together to discuss international drugs policy since 1998.

First and foremost, Pūras’s letter blames criminalization for overcrowding prisons, the contamination of substances and as a facilitator for epidemic levels of violence. It also denounces the use of the death penalty for drug offenses, declaring that substance abuse does not meet the threshold of violent crimes.  

Dublin Castle, Dame Street, Dublin - Public Injecting

Discarded Needle. Dame Street, Dublin

The second part of his letter highlights the importance of access to evidence based treatment for drug dependence.

As a step towards the fulfilment of the right to health, drug use and possession should be decriminalized and de-penalized alongside increased investment in treatment, education, and other interventions.

Pūras regards harm reduction policies as not just an option for states, but a legal obligation.

People experiencing drug dependence have different and complex needs, which require a wide range of diverse options and are more effectively addressed when those concerned can participate in the design, delivery and assessment of their treatment.

The letter calls for the immediate closure of compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers, stating that the “views and input of people who are drug dependent into their own treatment” is crucial.

The reform proposal also includes “provision of essential controlled medicines for the management of pain, including in palliative care, the treatment of drug dependence, and other conditions.”

US Troop crossing a poppy field in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

US Troop crossing a poppy field in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Pūras’s open letter is beginning to turn heads at the UN, asking important questions about the consequences of the ‘War on Drugs’ on the health and safety of citizens.

Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said the letter issued a challenge to many countries, including the UK, whose drugs laws were now being interpreted as in conflict with UN human rights treaty obligations.

“It does throw down the gauntlet to the UK government. We do still have a very punitive approach, we do still criminalise people who use drugs. The UK government is violating the right to health for many millions of people in this country. This is a very serious challenge and they will need to respond to this, which they won’t be able to do unless they change the law,” he said.

Read about Nick Clegg’s proposal for a ‘new deal on drugs’

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