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A legal marijuana growing operation in Colorado, where residents recently voted to legalize cannabis. (Photo: Brett Levin/cc/flickr)

Human Rights Abuses Rampant Under Drug War, 100 Groups Tell UN

Calling for significant shift in global drug laws, coalition says that 'experimenting with new, less harmful approaches, to drug policy is essential.'

Lauren McCauley

Citing large scale human rights abuses and discriminatory enforcement practices, more than 100 organizations on Wednesday sent an open letter (pdf) to the United Nations calling for a significant shift in global drug policy.

The international coalition is comprised of non-governmental organizations and drug reform advocacy groups—such as Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Drug Policy Alliance—as well as businesses, including Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps.

The letter charges that with its heavy emphasis on the criminalization of drug use, possession, manufacture, and distribution, the international War on Drugs has driven such abuses as discriminatory policing, disproportionate sentencing, mass incarceration, and in some cases, the use of death penalty for drug offenses.

Further, the criminalization of personal drug use and possession "infringes on the right to privacy and basic principles of autonomy on which other rights rest."

The impact of these rules, the group argues, has damaged public health with the "proliferation of infectious diseases and the suppression of essential and promising medicines." And by forcing the drug trade underground, the drug war "has dramatically enhanced the profitability of illicit drug markets, fueling the operations of groups that commit abuses, corrupt authorities, and undermine democracy and the rule of law in many parts of the world."

With the upcoming global drug policy summit, known as the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), coming up in 2016, the groups are calling on international leaders to reconsider current laws. Citing countries and U.S. states that have recently moved to legalize marijuana and other controlled substances, the coalition says that "experimenting with new, less harmful approaches, to drug policy is essential."

In order to accommodate some of these experiments, the group is asking the United Nations to prioritize the preservation of human rights over drug laws. "We believe that in case of irreconcilable conflict, human rights principles, which lie at the core of the United Nations charter, should take priority over provisions of the drug conventions," they write.

Among the recommendations put forth, the group is calling for: 

  • medicines containing or made up of controlled substances be made available and accessible to "all patients with a legitimate medical need," including cannabis and opioids for pain management.
  • drug laws that do not interfere with medical and scientific research involving controlled substances, as well as improved research into the medical uses of cannabis.
  • repeal of laws that criminalize personal use and possession of drugs.
  • reform of policies that "disproportionate sentencing or over incarceration and discriminatory policing."
  • efforts to work with UN member states to "end the human rights abuses occurring in drug enforcement, giving immediate priority to ending the death penalty for drug offenses."
  • the adoption of "drug policy evaluation metrics that focus on health, security, development, access to medicine , and human rights, rather than simple or derivative measures like use rates or quantities of drugs seized by authorities."
  • an endorsement of the concept of harm reduction "including but not limited to needle exchange programs, safe injection sites, medication assisted treatment..., and non-prosecution policies for persons seeking help for overdoses"

"Criminalization is inconsistent with human rights principles, and with basic principles of autonomy that underlie our rights," Maria MacFarland, co-director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, told the Washington Post. "We realize that people who use drugs do harm other people sometimes." But as with alcohol, "the solution is to have laws that criminalize harmful conduct—not just the use itself."

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