Laws Criminalizing Drug Possession Can Cause More Harm
Tenu Avafia is a policy adviser on law, human rights and treatment access issues in the HIV, Health and Development Group at the United Nations Development Programme
Rebecca Schleifer is a consultant at the United Nations Development Programme working on HIV, drug policies, disability and sexual rights issues.
– In many countries, a criminal record, even for a minor offense can have serious implications. Being convicted of a criminal offence renders one ineligible for certain jobs, social grants or benefits or from even being able to exercise one’s right to vote. It can also severely limit the ability to travel to certain countries and can result in the loss of custody of minor children. As prison conditions are often poor and health care services limited, a custodial sentence can have implications on the health outcomes of individuals.
Laws criminalizing drug possession for personal use and other non-violent, low-level drug offences drive people away from harm reduction services, placing them at increased risk of HIV, Hepatitis C, Tuberculosis and death by overdose. Prison sentences for women may result in the incarceration of their infants and young children, who stay with them for all or part of their sentence.
Another area where the shortcoming of many drug control policies is evident is that of controlled medicines. Overly restrictive drug control regulations and practices, have effectively excluded 5.5 billion people – or approximately 75 percent of the world’s population – from access to essential medicines like morphine to treat pain.
Many countries are exploring or initiating law and policy reforms with the aim of giving greater prominence to the Sustainable Development Goals as adopted by UN Members States in September 2015 or as enshrined in numerous human rights treaties. Some of these reforms will address the social harms of traditional drug policies on the poor and most marginalized. These include providing alternatives to arrest and incarceration for minor drug offences, harm reduction programmes, decriminalization of drug users and small farmers and increased access to pain medication.
One such example is the case of Jamaica, which decriminalized the possession and use of small amounts of cannabis and legalized its cultivation and consumption for religious, medicinal and research purposes. Jamaica also reformed its legislation to permit expungement of convictions for the personal possession or use of small quantities of cannabis. These decisions were prompted, in part, by concerns about the serious harmful consequences of criminalization on the long term prospects of young men who otherwise would be ensnared in a legal system that could undermine access to for example decent employment and economic growth as envisioned by Sustainable Development Goal Eight.
Jamaica’s reforms recognize that the connection between drugs and crime is not so straightforward. They put people first and in turn promote its citizens human development. The implications of this measure, together with others described in a recent discussion paper released by UNDP will be important as more countries look to make evidence informed, development sensitive changes to drug policy.