Side event: Decriminalizing drug use and possession to advance health and human rights

Organized by the Governments of Colombia, Czechia, Portugal and Switzerland, and the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Ruth Dreifuss Chair of Global Commission on drug policy and former President of Switzerland

Thank you for being here and showing interest in our work. We are just a group four citizens who feel that there is an obligation to advocate for reform. We have worked together for 6 years so far – learning from our experiences. Today is special as we want present to the CND community at large our most recent report ‘Advancing Drug Policy Reform’. Decriminalisation in our group is not often understood in a good way – if someone has a little amount it is no longer consumption, it is possession and is punishable. Decriminalisation is Decriminalisation – everything to do with the individual has to be decriminalised with no punishable treatment. We advocate strongly for decriminalisation in the name of human rights, privacy and under the principle of not punishing a non-violent drug crime. A criminal record can have terrible effects on a person even if they do not go to prison – they lose many of their fundamental rights. It is important to find alternatives to punishment for low level actors who often find themselves as victims even when they are coerced to begin with. We are convinced the next necessary step is the regulation of  drug markets. Millions of people use drugs across the world without causing harm to others – Page 29 of the report states:

1.States must abolish the death penalty for all drug-related offenses.

2.States must end all penalties—both criminal and civil—for drug possession for personal use, and the cultivation of drugs for personal consumption. Millions of people around the world use drugs and do so without causing any harm to others. To criminalize people who use drugs is ineffective and harmful, and undermines the principle of human dignity and the rule of law.

3.States must implement alternatives to punishment, such as diversion away from the criminal justice system, for all low-level, non-violent actors in the drug trade, such as those engaging in social supply, drug couriers, user-dealers, and cultivators of illicit crops. States must recognize that a number of people engage in these acts out of economic marginalization and implement alternatives to criminalization that uphold international human rights standards.

4.UN member states must remove the penalization of drug possession as a treaty obligation under the international drug control system.

5.States must eventually explore regulatory models for all illicit drugs and acknowledge this to be the logical next step in drug policy reform following decriminalization.

Carlos Medina Ramirez, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Justice of Colombia

Decriminalisation of drug use in our country can work in practice, but there are difficulties of applying this to higher limits. We have worked on President Santos’ policies focussing on human rights, and public care. There is always a possibility of going back due to political changes domestically. There is a dynamic in the peace process to change Colombia but there is some reluctance which presents a risk. Civil society can play a large role to ensure the message reaches our country. We need a different approach towards drug users & addiction. A preferential treatment has been granted to lower users under the peace agreement, but this gives rise to complications. Another challenge – our law goes back to 1986 and all attempts to reform this has been unsuccessful. Different procedures have to be applied to different actors – there is a list of 13 principles in total. There is enormous prison overcrowding in our country.

Tania Dussey-Cavassini, Vice Director-General Federal Office of Public Health Switzerland

Switzerland has not decriminalised drugs. The strength of Swiss policy has a proven track record of 25 years. We had high levels of HIV (22%) in injected drug users – people dying in parks, and serious public order issues happening under the windows of the Swiss government. We adopted a 4 pillar drug policy back then – prevention, control, treatment, and harm reduction pillars. As a result we reduced HIV to less than 1% and also reduced the number of overdoses. It enhanced public safety, and youth protection. A clear health and human rights approach was a successful one, and has been supported by 68% of the population in a recent referendum. I believe the conventions we have here are great bases for the future, putting people first. 247 million people using drugs we need to do something, and there is an opportunity to address this issue. Other states may see threats, but I believe we need to address the problem from all sides. Young people are still at the centre and this is key.

João Castel-Branco Goulão, National drug coordinator for Portugal

We have decriminalised drug use. Most of the gains that Tania shared, we have retained them. Ours encompasses decriminalisation as part of a broad approach adapted to public health concerns. We were able to integrate human rights into our policies and are firmly established in the system. There is still misunderstanding on Portugal’s model – personal circumstances are assessed to tailor to specific needs. Treatment, harm reduction and reintegration have been central. It is illegal to use drugs, but not considered an criminal offence – someone caught in possesion of 10 day amount are referred to professionals who reach a decision according to the individual and assess whether the user is occasional or problematic and then treatment is applied depending on the individual’s needs. It allows early intervention for those who are not deemed addicts. We look at the addict as a person in need, but drug use is still considered an offence. Currently drug use remains below the European average. Decriminalisation has contributed to reducing stigma helping users seek help. It has also contributed to a decline in problematic users, deaths and convictions. Decriminalisation is only one aspect of a comprehensive policy aimed at demand reduction interventions. There are benefits to be gained by policies aimed at reducing the harms of drug use. Criminal sanctions are ineffective.

Jindřich Vobořil  National Anti-drug coordinator Czech Republic

SImialr to Portugal, we decriminalised for personal use. If you have larger amounts it is still a criminal act, and smaller amounts can be penalised with a fine. We have a lot of myths and terms understood very differently. It started 1989 with the fall of totalitarianism. Demand is obviously the first primary problem for us. We had 20 years of methamphetamine production, but after the fall of totalitarianism the market dictated drug use. We wanted to deal with drugs as a human issue – we are dealing with humans, especially young people. It has to be realistic – we don’t believe in big ideas. Harm reduction was the centre of how we approach the core strategy. Decriminalisation was the only way to change the whole atmosphere from the earliest stage and is a process that has been going for 15 years. The evidence has shown that this is the way forward. Harm reduction should be at the core and I would like to see international conventions on harm reduction. Prohibition has some benefits as with other crimes that are prohibited. It is all about balance, though.

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