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The human rights of people who use drugs must be defended

Nuns holding up 'stop drug violations'

The Lancet has recently published a series of articles about drug use. More specifically, the use of opioids, cannabinoids, stimulants, and new psychoactive substances (NPS). One of these articles highlights an increasingly relevant issue of international drug policy.

This comment titled Change But Not Progression, emphasises that Governments around the world continue to pedal policies that are known to be ineffective and fail to implement evidence-based, cost-effective, harm reduction strategies. This is not only negligent but knowingly narcissistic. “Policies that might improve the lives of people with health problems relating to drug use are not seen as substantial vote winners. Indeed, punitive approaches to drug use are seen by some as a way to project the image of firm moral leadership, however inhumane or ineffective they might be, drug laws are an area in which the ethical imperative and even practical expedience, are rarely a priority for governments.” In short, policy that adversely worsens the burden of drug use wins votes. Therefore, politicians have little incentive to advocate for evidence-based approaches. We have seen this in practice with the current President of the Philippines – Rodrigo Duterte. In late 2019, Duterte polled with a 68% approval rating despite permitting human right atrocities on a state-wide level.

Additionally, drug use is routinely used as a justification for breaching people’s human rights. “It is time to recognise the humanity of drug users, and to offer them similar solidarity and protection from the worst excesses of populist politics”. The extrajudicial killings, of people who use drugs in the Philippines and the use of compulsory drug detention centres throughout South East Asia, are fundamentally a breach of people’s human rights. However, on the world stage, this is overlooked because the breaches are committed against people who use drugs. It will be interesting to see, in years to come, whether world leaders will be put on trial as a result of these over-punitive policies.

A contemporary example of world leaders breaching human rights and advocating for populist policies (which have no evidential grounding) is President of the Philippines – Rodrigo Duterte’s latest prohibition of the use, sale and import of e-cigarettes. President Duterte advocates for the arrest of people caught using e-cigarettes to “to protect public health” despite the evidence that indicates that E-cigarettes are 95% safer than traditional cigarettes and a multi-criteria decision analysis that demonstrates the relative harms of e-cigarettes are drastically lower than that of smoking. Using this policy, President Duterte has both worsened public health outcomes for the Philippines and simultaneously strengthened his political capital by appearing to respond proactively to emerging healthcare risks.

In contrast, some judiciaries are implementing guidelines with the knowledge that they will receive negative media attention and public backlash but they continue to do so because it is the right thing to do to uphold principles ingrained through human rights. Recently, the New Zealand Court of Appeal (NZCA) revised the sentencing framework for methamphetamine supply convictions. Until recently, the starting point for judges using sentencing guidelines began at 2-4 years imprisonment for supplying 5 grams of methamphetamine. For heavy users, 5 grams might be a few days supply and therefore, only intended for personal possession. Now, judges must examine whether addiction has led to offending, if so, there should be a discount in sentencing, a rehabilitative approach or in some cases a community-based sentence instead of imprisonment. This was met with calls that the NZCA was ‘soft on crime‘, however, the deterrent effect of minimum sentences and sentencing guidelines is minimal at best. The NZCA recognised this and chose to respect the human rights of those battling addiction.

Across the globe, breaches of human rights happen on a near-daily basis. For some inexplicable reason, a justification for these breaches is that the person who has had their human rights violated is ‘a drug user’, therefore the breach is warranted. This cannot continue, the criminalisation of people who use drugs is just another form of discrimination that cannot be tolerated any longer.

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