The United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a call for the decriminalization of all drugs. The joint statement is an effort to end healthcare discrimination and current drug policy as it calls nations to start “reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes.” According to the release, laws on “drug use or possession of drugs for personal use” should be abolished to eliminate criminal penalties which have arguably fostered pricey, unjust and ineffective incarceration, while doing nothing for the addict. WHO had previously called for drugs to be decriminalized in order to reduce the incidence of HIV infection, while UN has limited their fight to health-based and evidence-based approaches to drug use.
Many proponents cite the tendency for drug convictions to include a more disproportionate section of the population – that of minorities, people of color, and the poverty-stricken. The overcrowding of jails and the expense of public health programs and emergency health services to users who are most likely under or uninsured also adds to the grander financial problem, while doing little to really solve the situation. Many propose that the public financial toll would drastically reduce for law enforcement, the courts, the public health sectors. Money saved could be diverted into treatment programs, outreach, harm reduction programs, etc.
Public opinion on decriminalization is steadily going stronger as the harms of criminalizing drugs became more apparent. Polls in Maine, New Hampshire, and even South Carolina shows that the majority in each state support ending arrests for drug use and possession. Their views can be further broken down in a poll that stated almost 80% of voters view drug abuse as a health problem. Almost the same number of voters felt that arrest and prison time for the possession of small amounts was counterproductive and that prison overcrowding was a high priority problem nationwide.
Portugal is the first country to decriminalize drug possession and also introduced programs to divert more resources to drug prevention and treatment at the same time. The result has been successful as the country’s rate of drug-related deaths has became one of the lowest in Europe. Moreover, it reduced the spread and prevalence of HIV for those who used injectable drugs.
“Despite the risks and challenges inherent in tackling this global problem, I hope and believe we are on the right path, and that together we can implement a coordinated, balanced and comprehensive approach that leads to sustainable solutions. I know from personal experience how an approach based on prevention and treatment can yield positive results,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres. Guterres, who was Prime Minister to Portugal at the time of their country's drug decriminalization, stated this in an issued statement last month which calls for approaches that favor “prevention and treatment” rather than incarceration as it is more effective drug policy and maintains human rights.
Meanwhile, support for drug decriminalization has grown worldwide among many major medical, public health and human rights groups and organizations – the International Red Cross, the American Public Health Association, American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and Latino Justice.
However, last year’s UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs maintained an old-fashioned criminal approach to drugs, despite strong apprehensions from many countries.