In a joint statement, the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO) expressed their support for countries in the review and repeal of laws that criminalize drug use and possession of drugs for personal use. This joint statement, which addresses discrimination in health care settings, comes in light of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to “ensure that no one is left behind”.
The WHO has previously called for drug decriminalization as a necessary measure for public health but this joint statement with the UN represents another significant step in the global movement for drug decriminalization.
There is growing support for drug decriminalization – the elimination of criminal penalties for drug use and possession – in the U.S. and around the world. Leading medical, public health and human rights groups have endorsed drug decriminalization, including the International Red Cross, the American Public Health Association, American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and Latino Justice.
Public opinion on decriminalization has also been steadily increasing as the harms of criminalizing drugs become more apparent. Polls of presidential primary voters in Maine, New Hampshire and even South Carolina found that substantial majorities in each state support ending arrests for drug use and possession. In 2016, the first state-level decriminalization bill was introduced in Maryland and a similar version was reintroduced in 2017.
Internationally, several countries already have some form of drug decriminalization. Portugal, most notably, decriminalized drugs back in 2001 as a response to the country’s HIV crisis and has demonstrated the vast benefits of decriminalization – substantial reductions in overdose, HIV/AIDS and addiction, all without any increase in drug use or crime.
Not only does drug decriminalization drastically reduce the number of people mired in the quicksand of the criminal justice system – it also, as the UN/WHO statement highlights, vastly improve public health. It decreases the stigma against people who use drugs and addresses the discrimination they historically face.
The harms of discrimination are only exacerbated in health settings, where it is literally a matter of life and death. Decriminalization can be the difference between a loved one getting the health services they need and a loved one being stigmatized, denied treatment and in danger of losing their life.
Drug decriminalization is a rational and fiscally sound policy rooted in health and human rights. Governments throughout the U.S. and around the world have an indisputable moral and scientific imperative to pursue it.
Suchitra Rajagopalan is the research coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.