Home » Side event: Ending overreliance on punishment: Decriminalisation and prison decongestion as key goals of drug policy reform

Side event: Ending overreliance on punishment: Decriminalisation and prison decongestion as key goals of drug policy reform

Organized by the POS Foundation with the support of Czechia, Ghana, Paraguay, Switzerland, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Programme, the Centro de Estudios de Derecho, Justicia y Sociedad, the International Drug Policy Consortium, the Open Society Foundations, Penal Reform International and Students for Sensible Drug Policy

Helene, Human Rights Committee. This event is organised by POS Foundation. We will focus on a specific aspect of the OHCHR report which is around overincarceration.

Seth, Ghana. I present to you Ghana’s approach to drug policy reform. We used to centre on a war on drugs. In 2020, Ghana reformed its drug law from 1998. The law presented a conversation and a shift from a war on drugs to public health and rights. The Narcotics Law Commission is mandated to educate stakeholders including the judiciary, health, law enforcement, etc. It also offers rehabilitation measures by way of harm reduction. The Commission is in the process of developing a harm reduction regulation. It has already prepared a regulation on alternative development respecting the rights of people. Ghana’s prisons are housing a large number of people. With this new law, people who possess and use drugs are not offered custodial sentences again. They can pay a fine and go to a rehabilitation centre for reformation. These are acts that help to promote Ghana as one of the leading nations in Africa. Ghana continues to shine and the new law helps Ghana and mandates the Commission to educate the youth and get them to desist from acts that could bring them to the justice system. We couldn’t have gotten here without the role of civil society which has been an immense help.

Helene. It’s excellent to see this new journey on drug policy reform. It shows that there is no fatality in using excessive use of the criminal justice system. Ghana is a leading example not only in Africa but also around the world. We hope Ghana will be followed by other states.

Olivia Rope, Penal Reform International. First on the data: there are 11.5 million people in prison worldwide in any given day. It’s the highest ever recorded and numbers keep going up. 2.2 million are in prison for drug offences, with half a million being there for personal use, which is increasingly decriminalised. There is a huge range of people in pretrial detention and the rate is remaining stable despite the fact that international law states it should be used as a last resort. This is often because people don’t have money to pay bail. The numbers of women in prison are increasing at a faster rate than that of men. Many women end up in prison for low level drug offences in a context of discrimination, violence and involvement in minor offences. Drug policies continue to drive our present numbers in several regions, which are facing severe overcrowding, with all the human rights abuses related to this. Organised crime has taken over prisons. My second point is more positive: we see, and civil society documents, various examples of reform – it shows reforms can be achieved, regarding decrim or sentencing people to non-custodial sentences. At the Commission on the Status of Women, I heard first hand the impact of drug policies on women in Colombia. They have implemented a new law for women heads of households in situation of vulnerability and sentenced for drug crimes to be provided an alternative to prison. It’s a recognition of the harms of drug policies on women and their children. About 30 women have benefited from the reform. It’s small, but there is promise for more. This is a fundamental shift on how we use – or don’t – use prisons. Another example is Thailand, with a move towards more human rights based drug policies. My final point is that for the international community of penal reformers there are many tools and guidance documents that can be used to provide alternatives to prison. They’re cheaper, more effective at rehabilitation. If you look at who can benefit from alternatives to incarceration, drug related offences are often excluded. When alternatives were implemented during COVID-19, in many contexts drug offences were also excluded. And there are record high numbers of people executed for drug offences. We need drug law reforms, sentencing reforms.

Helene. Thank you for bringing the example of Colombia. As with Ghana, it shows there is no fatality in using criminal law and sanctions for drug offences. There is a very dramatic impact of women’s incarceration on their lives and that of their children. Thanks for bringing this into our conversation.

Jonathan Osei Owusu, POS Foundation. I don’t want to take much time on the introduction about POS Foundation. I want to focus on Ghana’s prisons, where congestion has led to huge issues. Ghana is not an exception. When we received our Colonial masters, the first prisons were established by them. The prison at the time, in this first prison, was already congested. We gained our independence in 1957. The overcrowding rate was 48%. You can see from this presentation that the overcrowding rate of 46% is the current one. If you look at specific prisons, some are over 150% overcrowding, especially in medium security prisons. One has the capacity for 815 prisoners but holds 3,300 inmates. Regarding the ratio men/women, it’s 86 to 1. Ghana took a bold step to decongest prisons. What we do is we go to state led prisons and set up a special mobile unit. Some people are there for 6, 10 years in pre-trial detention. One was held for 20 years without trial. We have been able to contribute to a reduction in pretrial detention from 33% to 9.8%. Kenya is learning from this experience. This is my team helping inmates fill in their applications and paper work. If the state is not moving the agenda, there is nothing civil society can do. So this is a unique partnership with the Ghanian government. A lot of achievement has been done by Ghana. After doing this, what do we do with cutting the inflow of people coming into prison. We joined stakeholders like IDPC, the WADPN in advocacy for a new drug law. The previous law was based on punishment. We can see the introduction of the new bill after a stakeholders consultation, to set up an alternative to incarceration to cut the influx of people entering prisons. It focuses on drug use and dependence as a public health issue rather than an enforcement, incarceration, punishment and prison. We did extremely well in introducing this new law. What is important to mention is that the law converted the minimum sentence of 10 years in prison into a fine. But those who are poor are those incarcerated, the rich are not affected. But when you come to the criminalisation of poverty, if you don’t have money to pay, you still go to prison. After the law, we didn’t sit down. With support from IDPC, OSF and others, we met with parliamentarians, police and judges to get them to understand the law. We also met farmers of weed because they didn’t know about the law, and we needed the indigenous voice to be involved. As for our recommendations: we should learn from each other on how to decongest our prisons. We have links with Kenya for example. African problems are best solved when implementing African solutions. The colonial laws we have inherited mean that we should use the African Union to reform them. We should also use the Mandela Rules on the effective introduction and implementation of alternatives to incarceration. I want to end with this quote: “The incarceration/imprisonment of drug users is a complete deviation from human development. They need support”.

Helene. I already have three questions from you! But I’ll wait for all the panellists to have talked and to open the space for other participants.

Gloria Lai, IDPC. We work mainly on South East Asia. Marie Nougier spoke about women in prison in Latin America this morning. In Asia, about 50% of women are there for drugs, and for many countries it’s higher. Asia also has very high rates of prison overcrowding. The Philippines has a 400% rate of overcrowding, the highest in the world. We have colleagues here from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines here. We circulated a paper on the work they do with women and trans women who use drugs and are caught up in the criminal justice system. In terms of the impacts of drug policies on women: various countries still use the death penalty for drug offences. In Singapore, 5g of heroin is passible to the death penalty. Extrajudicial killings have also become common practice in the Philippines since 2016 but it also happened before that. We also have disproportionate penalties for drug offences, which is why so many people are in prison for drug offences. There are also many abuses that happen during sentencing, even before people arrive in the criminal justice system. It is all the more the case for women and trans women. We see violations of the cultural and traditional rights of Indigenous people who grow and use opium and cannabis for traditional purposes. Finally, we also see the use of compulsory detention of people who use drugs in the name of treatment, where people are not allowed to leave. This gives the strong case for decriminalisation. Decriminalisation is the starting point to address these human rights issues. We call for a gold standard of decriminalisation where all forms of punishment, including a sentence to treatment, is removed. If we take a health-based approach, we do not impose any penalty for drug use and possession for personal use. There are a number of actions that also need to be decriminalised, such as the possession of drug use paraphernalia such as syringes. Our gold standard also means investing more in social and care services for PWUD. Olivia mentioned the case of Thailand, so I will focus on this too as an example. There are opportunities in the region, with the recognition that there’s an issue with prisons and overcrowding. So there is a motivation to do something about that. In Thailand, in the past 10 years, the MoJ wanted to move things forward, including decrim. In 2021, a law reform was passed but it didn’t remove criminal sanctions for drug possession. In the region, most drug use is not criminalised, but possession is a crime. In Myanmar, you can be passible of a urine test and be criminalised even if you’re not in possession of a drug. In Thailand, they were moving in that direction but stopped short and kept criminal penalties for possession and use. Penalties are less severe, with more mitigating factors for judges to decide to impose a prison sentence, or an alternative such as electronic monitoring. Generally, the political situation makes it very difficult. Outside of South East Asia, it’s common to reply on a war on drugs approach, with these words being used by governments. When things don’t go well for political parties, launching a war on drugs is a way to garner support for themselves. This is what we are currently seeing in Thailand. And reforms are hard because you need to engage with so many different ministries in Thailand. For example, we didn’t engage enough with the MoH. There are also a lot of entrenched interests in keeping drugs illegal, and there are a lot of people in higher positions who profit from the huge amounts of money. Government ministries want to retain their budgets, and this is the reason why some ministries are resistant to closing down drug detention centres. Governments have also become more authoritarian, and are learning from one another to repressing civil society and the media. There are opportunities but challenges are huge.


Collin Johnson, Toronto Ham Reduction Alliance. We are all impacted by these fullish laws and draconian drug policies. I heard somebody who said “just say no” and I was wondering, “what planet do you live in?”. On decriminalisation: we have the same issues in Canada with prisons filled with black people incarcerated for small drug charges. We know the most vulnerable are the most affected. It’s a fact and we must reassess our mindsets. I am a person who uses drugs, and no matter what others may say, I will not stop. What annoys me is that people criticise us but at 4pm they go to a bar, which in a way is a safe consumption site.

Norway: You say the death penalty is imposed for drug offences, but is it actually applied?

Gloria: The Singaporean government has executed people this year for drug offences.

Helene: I also have a question, for the four of you. Gloria, you said something really important about public opinion. The government will use this strong discourse. In Ghana, Canada and Thailand, what is the support or push back of public opinion? Do they understand your campaign on decriminalisation?

Collin: In all of our services, everybody wants to change their drug laws. But it all comes back to big corporations and government officials that want to retain prohibition.

Olivia: A lot of messaging is influenced by public opinion. It is designed by the policies that governments want to push. We’ve seen this in Ecuador with glossy films on social media of people being moved to a super-max prisons to stop violence and drugs. Public support went up as a result. If you have a state that promotes harm reduction in their public messaging, then you also gain public support. We realised that public support is essential but the evidence-based policy making should be the first point of port, not public opinion. That’s what we’ve seen when working on prisons. It’s a complex but important question you ask.

Gloria: It’s difficult to answer the question because it’s hard to measure public opinion. There is a clear distinction between people who use drugs and people engaged in the supply side. The government dominates the messaging on this, and so it’s hard for civil society to influence public opinion on this issue.

Jonathan: The kind of orientation we’re giving our public is important. We try to influence public opinion through our work. We focus on data using the media. We have to use scientific research, and meet parliamentarians too, to understand public opinion.

Inez, NoBox Philippines: When it comes to public perceptions and how drug policies and laws drive incarceration. In the minds of the public this is not clear. People sometimes say that it’s people’s choice to use drugs. In terms of narrative, it’s switching the discussion. Sometimes, there is discussion that you need health instead of punishment, but sometimes even the health focus is a driver of punishment. So we need to change the framework under which we operate and talk about drugs.

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