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UN Experts Call for Personal Drug Use to be Decriminalized as a “Matter of Urgency”

UN Experts Call for Personal Drug Use to be Decriminalized as a “Matter of Urgency”

Cannabis is opening up new global ideological divides as the international legalization wave swells. Almost all of Africa (South Africa being the notable exception) is hell-bent on criminalizing cannabis, where the Western World is trending towards decriminalization.

Sarah Sinclair, Cannabis Healthj

13 July 2023 at 14:00:00

This story first appeared on Cannabis Health.


UN experts say personal drug use should be decriminalised as a ‘matter of urgency’, amid calls for leaders to move away stigmatising policies in favour of harm-reduction, prevention and public health.

In a statement issued on Friday 23 June, a group of UN representatives and Human Rights experts have called for an end to the ‘global war on drugs’.


To mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking 2023, the body is pushing for transformative change in how countries across the world approach drug policy, focusing on health and other human rights, as opposed to criminalisation.


The experts, which include a number of representatives of the Human Rights Council, highlight how current policies disproportionately affect marginalised groups and ethnic minorities, particularly those of African heritage, Indigenous Peoples, women and those who identify as LGBTIQ+.

“The ‘war on drugs’ may be understood to a significant extent as a war on people,” reads the statement.


“Its impact has been greatest on those who live in poverty, and it frequently overlaps with discrimination directed at marginalised groups, minorities and Indigenous Peoples.


“In various countries, the ‘war on drugs’ has been more effective as a system of racial control than as a tool to reduce drug markets… Criminal laws and the punitive use of administrative and other sanctions stigmatise already marginalised populations.”


In the UK, Black people are 12 times more likely than white people to be prosecuted for cannabis possession. Meanwhile, a recent government-funded study found that Aboriginal Australians were more likely to be charged with a cannabis offence than the general population.


The UN also highlights how criminalisation and incarceration prevents people from accessing the necessary healthcare and support. According to its own data, only one in eight people with drug dependence have access to appropriate treatment.


“Criminalisation results in significant barriers to access to health services (including those for HIV and palliative care) and in other human rights violations,” the experts continue.


“As called for by the UN system Common Position on drug-related matters, drug use and possession for personal use should be decriminalised as a matter of urgency. Drug use or dependence are never a sufficient justification for detaining a person.”


They conclude: “We urge Member States and international bodies to supersede their current drug policies with ones grounded in the principles of the application of a comprehensive, restorative and reintegrative justice approach. Effective, community-based, inclusive, and preventive measures are equally important.”

European Drug Report highlights need for reform

The statement comes in the week following the publication of the latest European Drug Report, which highlighted the prevalence of drug use and trends across Europe.


According to the findings from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) cannabis remains the most commonly used illicit drug in Europe, with around 8% (22.6 million) of European adults (aged 15–64 years) estimated to have consumed it in the last year.


The number of cannabis use or possession offences has also increased, with seizures of cannabis having reached their highest level in a decade, while cannabis is reported to be responsible for almost a third of all drug treatment admissions.


The findings led to further calls for policymakers to address the need for reform, with cannabis remaining widely available across the continent and new products made from semi-synthetic cannabinoids, such as HHC are also becoming increasingly more accessible.


International drug policy researcher, Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, says the report reinforces the importance of taking a ‘preventative harm-reduction approach’.


The EMCDDA’s own research has shown that trends in cannabis consumption are not related to changes in policy or legislation, whether that’s a move towards more or less criminalisation.


“People consume cannabis for a series of reasons, which are overall little affected by legislative changes or by more or less presence of the police in their lives,” he told Cannabis Health.


“More police make the life of people who consume cannabis harder, but does not affect their use. It just makes it more risky.


“This only reinforces the role of prevention and harm reduction as the best available leverage on the health effects of cannabis use on people. “


In his recent publication, the Sustainable Cannabis Policy Toolkit, Riboulet-Zemouli, outlines key recommendations for leaders to take a public health approach to regulation and education around cannabis.


He calls for an end to prevention campaigns which have been based on fear, stigma, and misinformation, as well as those led by law enforcement.


Instead, governments should shift public spending on drugs from law enforcement to health, with a focus on ‘harm reduction, prevention and education programmes’.


“Decades of civil society work have summarised the key aspects of cannabis prevention, which should be ‘grounded in evidence-based information, as well as non-judgmental and open to interactive dialogue, meaningfully inclusive, delivered by trained facilitators or peers, that fully incorporates harm reduction, and that pays close attention to the overlapping issues of gender, racism, social justice, and stigma’,” he says.


Prohibition has also prevented research and ‘knowledge-sharing’ around the health impacts, risks and safe consumption of cannabis, leading to ‘significant gaps’ in our understanding, according to Riboulet-Zemouli.


He recommends that all governments should be funding independent research into ‘all aspects’ of the cannabis plant.

European states moving towards new approaches

Promisingly, a number of European countries are now introducing, or planning to introduce, new approaches to regulating cannabis for recreational or adult-use. These include, Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta and the Netherlands), plus Switzerland.


Switzerland’s first adult-use trial got underway in the city of Basel earlier this year, with more expected to roll out soon. Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Germany are all expected to follow this ‘experiment’ approach, after Germany scaled back its plans for full legalisation, citing challenges within EU and UN law.


As the first part of its phased approach to reform. Germany is also expected to decriminalise personal use and self-cultivation by the end of the year, with social clubs to be introduced in the interim.


Riboulet-Zemouli believes the social club model is an ‘effective’ and ‘non-stigmatising’ tool to help prevent the potential harms linked to cannabis.

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“Today, there is an important corpus of academic literature showing that a well thought-through and small-scale regulatory model like the Cannabis Social Club is an effective tool to mitigate the potential harms linked to cannabis use while providing a nexus for prevention campaigns and education to reach users in a direct and non-stigmatising environment,” he commented.


“In this regard, it is satisfying to see that the Cannabis Social Club model –an eminently sustainable and European-born form of social economy tailored for cannabis– has received the favour of a number of EU countries’ governments in their plans to regulate the substance.”

Meanwhile, the UK lags behind

While the UK wasn’t included in the latest EMCDDA report as it is no longer a member of the EU, domestic statistics show similar trends.


Government figures suggest that cannabis has consistently been the most used drug in England and Wales since estimates began in the early 90s. The latest statistics for drug use, published in June 2022 found that 7.4% and 16.2% of adults aged 16 to 59 years and 16 to 24 years, respectively, reported having used the drug in the last year.


But rather than looking to more progressive approaches, UK policy makers have called for tougher penalties to tackle drug use.  This is despite research showing that not only is prohibition ineffective, it causes further harm to society and disproportionately affects black people and ethnic minority groups.


A paper recently explored whether the harsher sanctions proposed by the UK Home Office are ‘ethically justifiable’.


The authors state: “First and foremost the aim of drug policy should be to reduce harm to maximise health and wellbeing. Whilst the primary prevention of population risk behaviours (such as drug use) is a key element of public health approaches, this should be as a means to an end of reducing harm, as opposed to being an end in and of itself.


“This nuance has been lost in contemporary drug policy approaches that equate use and harm.”

Andre Gomes, communications lead for Release, which collaborated on the paper, told Cannabis Health: “The UK’s approach to cannabis lags behind most of Europe’s progressive discussions around cannabis reform: patients continue to struggle to access affordable medical cannabis, and consumers continue to be arrested for its possession. What’s most damning is that cannabis laws are constantly used by the police to harass people of colour, particularly young black men for suspected cannabis use or selling.”


He added: “While the outlook for the future British cannabis market looks bleak in terms of equitable access, we must continue advocating for a legal model that will repair the social, racial and economic damage that cannabis’ prohibition has created for British users.”

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