Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Advocacy for drug policies reform & enabling environment

In this video, Ann Fordham from IDPC speaks about advocacy for drug policy reform
In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that globally there were 585.000 drug related deaths a year most of which were preventable or treatable. These were arising from complications related to HIV, hepatitis C or from drug overdoses. That number is the equivalent of a Rwandan genocide every single year. Repressive approaches do not work to deter drug use or to stem the drug trade. For example,
Arrest, detention and imprisonment do not work to deter people from using drugs or engaging in the drug trade. Instead, countries with the most punitive regimes tend to have high rates of HIV infection amongst people who inject drugs, as well as other drug related health harms, such as overdose. The burden of criminalization and law enforcement measures is most often borne by those who are already socially disadvantaged.
In addition, it’s now irrefutably clear that policy responses based in prohibition which keeps the market in the control of organized crime has made the drug trade stronger, more robust and more diverse.
When I talk about decriminalisation, I’m talking about removing all criminal and administrative punishments or sanctions associated with drug use or possession for personal use the UN drug control treaties have significant flexibility to allow countries to decriminalize drug use and possession for personal use. So there is no international legal requirement to continue to criminalize people for using drugs. Furthermore, there have been increasing calls on governments to stop the criminalization of drug use given that the evidence shows that these measures drive health harms such as HIV and hepatitis C amongst people who use drugs. Unfortunately, there is a vested interest in the status quo.
For example, law enforcement often have budgets related to their drug control activities which make them resistant to changes such as reform of drug laws. Some governments are also resistant to using domestic funds for harm reduction services because they have a zero tolerance approach to drug use and continue to label people who use drugs as criminals.
Essentially, there are two clear path towards decriminalization. The first is de jure decriminalization. This is to rewrite the laws to remove punishment for drug use and possession of drugs for personal use. The second is called de facto decriminalization. This is where drug laws are not rewritten and the selected activities remain criminal offenses. But in practice, the criminal penalties are not applied. This is the case in the Netherlands, for example, where police have been instructed not to arrest anyone for druguse or possession of personal use of any drug. This has been formalized in guidance in the Netherlands from the prosecutor’s office.
The key principle of decriminalisation in either form is to ensure the health and well-being of people who use drugs and to move away from damaging approaches that punish them and drive stigma and discrimination towards them.
Decriminalisation is central to the enabling environment for providing health and harm reduction services for people who use drugs the environment must be conducive to providing harm reduction services. It’s no use, for example, if you have needle and syringe programs and drop-in centres or methadone clinics set up, if there are police waiting around outside to arrest people who visit them
If the language of a government is focused on zero tolerance, repression and war on drugs approaches, this will fuel stigma and discrimination as well as structural violence towards people who use drugs. It would also hamper efforts to provide scaled up and sustainable harm reduction services. In addition, there is a political commitment at the UN level by governments to ensure that 30 % of all HIV services must be community-led by 2030. Negative messaging about people who use drugs is damaging and unacceptable and will undermine the ability to meet this important commitment.
Conventional thinking around drug use needs to change, and that takes dialogue and political courage. Countries that have taken brave steps to decriminalize drug use have generally accepted that they may not have the full weight of public opinion on their side at the beginning of the process but that there are other imperatives at stake. For example, ensuring that drug policy responses do not fuel health harms for people who use drugs. The UN system has recently released a common position on drug policy that makes explicit the need to decriminalize drug use and possession for personal use. This position is based on evidence from the last 10 years of UN drug policies, and it is clear that criminalization is both counterproductive and harmful.
The International Drug Policy Consortium is also leading discussions for decriminalization through a global grassroots campaign called “Support Don’t Punish,” Support, Don’t Punish, asks global and community leaders to consider whether repressive drug control policies have led to the desired results. It has brought thousands of advocates and activists together from all over the world to challenge and reject the dominant narrative of punishment and to advocate for funding and for support for harm reduction and health services to uphold the rights of people who use drugs. Additionally, IDPC is in the process of developing an online E-course on decriminalization to empower advocates to advocate or this policy change in their national context. Watch this space.
There are many resources on our website, from IDPC as well as on our member and partner organizations’ websites on decriminalization and on drug policy reform.
There are many examples of decriminalization and drug policy reform around the world, around 30 jurisdictions have implemented some form of decriminalization. Among them, Portugal has decriminalized drug use by law 20 years ago amid concerns over HIV rates amongst its population of people who inject drugs in the years since, the way they have done this has given rise to some controversy. But the fact is that that decriminalization in Portugal has led to a notable fall in new HIV infections, and the age at which young people begin to use drugs has risen, which is a positive sign. As I noted earlier, the Netherlands has also moved towards decriminalization.
“De facto” decriminalization, so this is without actually rewriting the laws that make drug use illegal. This approach involves something called the “expediency principle”, which makes arrest or harassment of anyone using drugs practically a practically non-existent priority for police. And in no way there is broad political agreement on the principle of decriminalizing drug use. And a public consultation is currently taking place to progress this. Elsewhere, countries with the most draconian drug laws have been engaging in consultations around decriminalization. Countries like Ghana, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand have all taken steps to review their drug laws, but with limited results so far, advocacy work is ongoing in these countries and in many other countries around the world.
In all of these countries, advocacy plays a significant role in making visible conversations about why decriminalisation of drug use is important and why it’s important to contribute to the provision of harm reduction services for people who use drugs.

Repressive drug policies and the war on drugs have come up throughout the course many times. We have heard from several speakers how drug policies – rather than the drug itself – is often the major cause of harm for people.

Repressive approaches do not work to reduce drug use or to stop the drug trade. In this video Ann Fordham (IDPC) briefly takes us through some of the principles of drug policy making and deconstructs the misconception that repressive laws are dictated by the international drug conventions.

We will hear examples of different ways to implement decriminalisation, and the opportunities to advocate for this on a national and international platform.


Ann refers to this E-course that dives into much more details.

This article is from the free online

Drug Use and Harm Reduction

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now