The World Health Organization came out publicly, if quietly, in support of the decriminalization of personal drug use in a report released last week.
The 159-page report, which focused primarily on HIV prevention and care worldwide, included a brief section discussing “good practice recommendations concerning decriminalization.” In it, WHO offered the following recommendations:
- Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize injection and other use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration.
- Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize the use of clean needles and syringes (and that permit NSPs [needle and syringe programs]) and that legalize OST [opioid substitution therapy] for people who are opioid-dependent.
- Countries should ban compulsory treatment for people who use and/or inject drugs.
The recommendations refer specifically to the decriminalization of personal drug use, not the decriminalization of drug cultivation, production and trafficking, Dr. Andrew Ball of the WHO told HuffPost. He also said that the global organization is not calling for the legalization of drugs worldwide.
Ball is senior adviser on strategy, policy and equity in the WHO’s Department of HIV, which produced the report.
“The guidelines recommend decriminalization of a range of behaviors of key populations — not just drug use — on public health grounds, so as to improve access to and utilization of health services, to reduce the likelihood of the adoption of riskier behaviors and to reduce incarceration rates,” Ball said.
While bold, the WHO’s favorable take on decriminalization of personal drug use is not entirely new coming from a U.N. agency, Ball argued.
He noted that although the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances permits countries to criminalize the personal use of drugs, it also allows “as an alternative to conviction or punishment … measures for the treatment, education, aftercare, rehabilitation or social reintegration of the offender.”
Ball added that “there is increasing interest in applying such flexibility in the interpretation of the Convention on public health and human rights grounds.”
Actual decriminalization is not without precedent either. Some countries have begun to consider it for some or all illicit drugs. In 2001, Portugal did decriminalize all drugsand has seen a dramatic decline in drug abuse since.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime has also addressed other ways of responding to personal drug use, saying in a 2009 discussion paper that “treatment, rehabilitation, social reintegration and aftercare should be considered as an alternative to criminal justice sanctions.” Earlier this year, the office added that “criminal sanctions are not beneficial” in addressing drug use.
The U.N. General Assembly plans to hold a special session in 2016 to assess the “world drug problem.” Similar sessions in the past have focused on more idealistic, and arguably impractical, notions of creating a “drug free world.” But if the WHO report is prologue, the upcoming event may shift toward seeing decriminalization of personal drug use as a key solution.