The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently submitted a paper recommending that UN members consider “decriminalizing drug and possession for personal consumption.” However, that paper has been withdrawn after the UNODC received pressure from at least one member country.
The basis of the UNODC’s argument for decriminalization was that “arrest and incarceration are disproportionate measures” to the crime. The document was drafted by Dr. Monica Beg, chief of the HIV/AIDS section of the UNODC. It was to be presented at a conference in Kuala Lumpur next month.
The UNODC oversees and hosts international drug conventions and presents guidance on compliance with the conventions.
Apparently, the document was not officially sanctioned by the UNODC and one official described Beg as “a middle-ranking official” who attempted to offer her professional viewpoint. Nonetheless, the document was on agency letterhead and claimed to “clarif[y] the position of the UNODC to inform country responses to promote a health and human-rights approach to drug policy. Treating drug use for non-medical purposes and possession for personal consumption as criminal offenses has contributed to public health problems and induced negative consequences for safety, security, and human rights.”
In many of the member nations, drug possession is a criminal offense. Last year in the United Kingdom alone, almost 36,000 people were charged with and prosecuted for drug possession and 1,194 received custodial sentences.
But, the UNODC has repeatedly argued that decriminalizing drugs does not properly regard the severe harms that drugs pose. “It neither addresses the risk factors which lead individuals to misuse drugs or alcohol, nor the misery, cost and lost opportunities that dependence causes individuals, their families and the wider community.”
The UNODC faces pressure to make a clear statement regarding its position on the decriminalization of drug possession and use. Other United Nations agencies including the World Health Organization and UNAIDS have already reiterated their opposition to the imposition of criminal sanctions imposed upon drug users on health and human rights grounds.
Many supporters of this campaign believe that the UNODC is key to changing government policies on drugs. The lobby group “Transform” stated that the unpublished briefing paper was “a devastating critique of the harms caused by criminalization.”
Transform’s Danny Kushlick further added that, “The UN agency in charge of the global drug war says criminalizing drug use is unnecessary, disproportionate, causes ill health, violence and death, and breaks international obligations towards health and human rights as a result.”
It is unclear as to the future of the document. Sources within the UNODC proffer that there would need to be agency-wide discussion, debate, consultation and agreement before the paper’s recommendations became actual policy.