International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy
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Thematic reference guide - Development

Foundational human rights principles

Universal human dignity is a fundamental principle of human rights. It is from the inherent dignity of the human person that our rights derive. No drug law, policy, or practice should have the effect of undermining or violating the dignity of any person or group of persons.

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Criminal justice and development

Children have the right to protection from exploitation, including in the illicit drug trade. States shall take appropriate measures to protect children from exploitation in the illicit drug trade through preventative and remedial measures.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Prioritise addressing the root causes of involvement in the drug trade, including poverty and social marginalisation.

ii. Clearly define exploitation, ensuring that children’s participation in the rural cultivation of illicit drug crops through tradition or poverty is not wrongly treated as exploitation without specific evidence of such exploitation taking place.

iii. Avoid treating as criminals children who have been exploited in the drug trade.

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Health and development

Everyone has the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. This right applies equally in the context of drug laws, policies, and practices.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Take deliberate, concrete, and targeted steps to ensure that drug-related and other health care goods, services, and facilities are available on a non-discriminatory basis in sufficient quantity; financially and geographically accessible; acceptable in the sense of being respectful of medical ethics, cultural norms, age, gender, and the communities being served; and of good quality (that is, with a solid evidence base).

ii. Address the social and economic determinants that support or hinder positive health outcomes related to drug use, including stigma and discrimination of various kinds, such as against people who use drugs.

iii. Ensure that demand reduction measures implemented to prevent drug use are based on evidence and compliant with human rights.

iv. Repeal, amend, or discontinue laws, policies, and practices that inhibit access to controlled substances for medical purposes and to health goods, services, and facilities for the prevention of harmful drug use, harm reduction among those who use drugs, and drug dependence treatment.

In addition, States may:

v. Utilise the available flexibilities in the UN drug control conventions to decriminalise the possession, purchase, or cultivation of controlled substances for personal consumption.

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Human rights and environmental protection are interdependent. States should ensure a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights, including the rights to health and to an adequate standard of living. This applies to those who live and work in and near communities where the cultivation of illicit drug crops takes place. State obligations to protect against environmental health hazards also apply extraterritorially.

In accordance with efforts to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights related to a healthy environment, States should:

i. Ensure that drug control measures do not cause deforestation, the degradation of natural habitats, the loss of biodiversity, or other environmental harm either within or outside their geographic borders.

ii. Take effective steps to prevent and redress environmental harms caused by drug control measures on illicit crop cultivation and production, including steps to limit exposure to pesticides or other chemicals used to eradicate such crops.

iii. Establish and enforce buffer zones prohibiting or regulating the application of pesticides and other chemicals used for drug crop eradication around sensitive sites, including human settlements, farms, and water sources.

iv. Prohibit the aerial spraying of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals as a method to prevent and eradicate illicit drug crops absent proof that such chemicals pose no risk to human life or the environment.

v. Require comprehensive environmental impact assessments to be carried out with the participation of affected populations in order to assess the expected impact of drug control measures on the environment and to determine the extent to which planned activities can be modified. These studies should be completed prior to the commencement of drug control measures.

vi. Monitor the implementation of drug control activities. In the event of environmental and related harm arising from such activities, develop and implement adequate and effective remediation measures in consultation with affected populations.

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Poverty and sustainable livelihoods

Everyone has the right to social security, including social insurance. This right applies equally to all without discrimination, including people who use drugs, people dependent on illicit drug economies, people in prisons and other places of detention or closed settings, and people who have been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of drug-related offences.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Take steps, to the maximum of available resources, to establish and progressively expand comprehensive social security systems that equally guarantee legal entitlements – including universal access to health care, housing, education, and basic income security – to the aforementioned individuals and groups, while also ensuring that particularly marginalised or vulnerable groups can effectively exercise and realise these human rights on an equal basis with others.

ii. Prevent and remedy the denial of social assistance to persons on the basis of drug dependence, which is impermissible discrimination.

iii. If in a position to assist other States, facilitate the realisation of the right to social security and related entitlements, including through the provision of economic and technical assistance.

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Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate food, clothing, and housing. This right is equally shared by people who use drugs and people who are dependent on illicit drug economies.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Develop specific viable and sustainable economic alternatives for individuals and communities who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the illicit drug economy.

ii. Ensure that efforts to prevent illicit drug crop cultivation or eradicate illicitly cultivated drug crops do not have the effect of depriving people of their rights to a means of subsistence or to be free from hunger; ensure that interventions are properly sequenced so that crop eradication does not take place until small-farmer households dependent on illicit drug crop economies have adopted viable and sustainable alternative livelihoods; and undertake associated actions to promote land tenure through state-recognised land titling procedures.

iii. Review laws, policies, and practices on land and housing to ensure the existence of adequate safeguards protecting against discriminatory eviction based on actual or suspected illicit drug use and providing access to timely recourse and commensurate reparation for victims of such eviction.

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Everyone has the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. This right applies equally in the context of drug use and dependence, as well as in development and criminal justice responses to the illicit drug trade.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Take legislative and other appropriate measures to ensure that scientific knowledge and technologies and their applications – including evidence-based, scientifically proven interventions to treat drug dependence, to prevent overdose, and to prevent, treat, and control HIV, hepatitis C, and other diseases – are physically available and financially accessible without discrimination.

ii. Ensure that scientific research, including that on controlled drugs, can be undertaken and communicated without censorship and free from political interference.

iii. Consider reviewing the 1961 and 1971 drug control conventions’ schedules of substances under international control in light of recent scientific evidence, and prioritise exploring the medical benefits of controlled substances in accordance with the World Health Organization’s scheduling recommendations.

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Women have the equal right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food, clothing, and housing. This applies to women involved in the drug trade and dependent on illicit drug economies.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Develop specific, viable, and sustainable economic alternatives for women who are particularly at risk of exploitation in the illicit drug economy, including women who use drugs, poor women (whether urban or rural), and women from indigenous and ethnic minority communities.

ii. Take all necessary legislative, administrative, and policy measures to ensure that women’s specific needs and circumstances are taken into account in efforts to address involvement in the drug trade and dependence on illicit drug economies.

iii. Adhere to international standards in all efforts to address and respond to drug-related criminality among women.

iv. Make available gender-specific interventions that aim primarily at diversion from the criminal justice system, and address the underlying factors leading to women coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

With regard to sentencing for drug-related offences, States should:

v. Legislate for and prioritise non-custodial sentences for pregnant women where possible and appropriate.

vi. Ensure that courts have the power to consider mitigating factors in light of women’s caretaking responsibilities, such as lack of criminal history and relative non-severity and nature of the criminal conduct.

vii. Ensure the earliest possible transfer of non-resident foreign-national women prisoners, following the request or informed consent of the woman concerned.

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Women have the right to participate in and benefit from, on an equal basis with men, efforts to provide alternative livelihoods, including in rural communities dependent on illicit drug crops.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Take necessary legislative and policy measures to ensure women’s equal right to participate in and benefit from efforts to provide alternative livelihoods in rural communities dependent on illicit drug crops. Such measures may include adopting, amending, repealing, or modifying laws, policies, and practices to ensure women’s rights, on an equal basis with men, to agrarian reforms, to ownership, possession, and control of land, and to water and other natural resources, as well as their access to financial services, credits, loans, markets, and marketing facilities, irrespective of their civil or marital status.

ii. Take measures to ensure that women in rural areas are meaningfully involved in decision making and benefit from programmes and credit facilities on an equal basis with men.

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Children have the right to protection from exploitation, including in the illicit drug trade. States shall take appropriate measures to protect children from exploitation in the illicit drug trade through preventative and remedial measures.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Prioritise addressing the root causes of involvement in the drug trade, including poverty and social marginalisation.

ii. Clearly define exploitation, ensuring that children’s participation in the rural cultivation of illicit drug crops through tradition or poverty is not wrongly treated as exploitation without specific evidence of such exploitation taking place.

iii. Avoid treating as criminals children who have been exploited in the drug trade.

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Gender and development

Women have the equal right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food, clothing, and housing. This applies to women involved in the drug trade and dependent on illicit drug economies.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Develop specific, viable, and sustainable economic alternatives for women who are particularly at risk of exploitation in the illicit drug economy, including women who use drugs, poor women (whether urban or rural), and women from indigenous and ethnic minority communities.

ii. Take all necessary legislative, administrative, and policy measures to ensure that women’s specific needs and circumstances are taken into account in efforts to address involvement in the drug trade and dependence on illicit drug economies.

iii. Adhere to international standards in all efforts to address and respond to drug-related criminality among women.

iv. Make available gender-specific interventions that aim primarily at diversion from the criminal justice system, and address the underlying factors leading to women coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

With regard to sentencing for drug-related offences, States should:

v. Legislate for and prioritise non-custodial sentences for pregnant women where possible and appropriate.

vi. Ensure that courts have the power to consider mitigating factors in light of women’s caretaking responsibilities, such as lack of criminal history and relative non-severity and nature of the criminal conduct.

vii. Ensure the earliest possible transfer of non-resident foreign-national women prisoners, following the request or informed consent of the woman concerned.

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Women have the right to participate in and benefit from, on an equal basis with men, efforts to provide alternative livelihoods, including in rural communities dependent on illicit drug crops.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Take necessary legislative and policy measures to ensure women’s equal right to participate in and benefit from efforts to provide alternative livelihoods in rural communities dependent on illicit drug crops. Such measures may include adopting, amending, repealing, or modifying laws, policies, and practices to ensure women’s rights, on an equal basis with men, to agrarian reforms, to ownership, possession, and control of land, and to water and other natural resources, as well as their access to financial services, credits, loans, markets, and marketing facilities, irrespective of their civil or marital status.

ii. Take measures to ensure that women in rural areas are meaningfully involved in decision making and benefit from programmes and credit facilities on an equal basis with men.

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Indigenous peoples and development

Indigenous peoples have the rights to self-determination and to freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development. They also have the right to own, use, develop, and control the lands, territories, and resources that they have traditionally owned, occupied, or otherwise acquired. Indigenous peoples have the right to conserve their lands and protect them from harm caused by drug control measures.

In accordance with these rights, States should:

i. Ensure that drug control measures do not deprive indigenous peoples of their right to self-determination or their right to subsistence.

ii. Ensure that drug control measures recognise, respect, and protect the rights of indigenous peoples to own, use, develop, and control their lands, territories, and resources.

iii. Ensure that drug control measures do not negatively affect the right to conservation or productive capacity of indigenous peoples’ lands.

iv. Take effective measures to prevent and redress harms to the environment and productive capacity of indigenous territories and resources caused by drug control measures.

v. Require comprehensive environmental impact assessments to be carried out with the participation of relevant indigenous peoples in order to assess the environmental, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual impacts of drug control activities prior to their commencement and to determine the extent to which these activities can be modified.

vi. Monitor the implementation of such drug control activities and modifications.

vii. In the event of harm resulting from drug control measures, develop and implement adequate and effective remediation measures in consultation with affected populations.

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Indigenous peoples have the right to be consulted and to free, prior, and informed consent regarding matters affecting them. This includes the right to be consulted on drug control measures and national and international agreements that may affect their lands, resources, cultures, and identities, as well as the right to give or withhold their consent.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Consult and cooperate in good faith with relevant indigenous peoples, through their representative institutions, in order to obtain their free, prior, and informed consent before adopting or implementing any drug control measure that may affect them or their territories. Ensure that consultations continue as needed throughout the period of implementation.

ii. Adopt legislative, administrative, and other measures necessary to recognise and ensure the right of indigenous peoples to be effectively consulted, in accordance with their traditions and customs, and the right to give or withhold their free, prior, and informed consent with regard to drug control measures that may affect them or their territories.

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Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalise their cultural traditions and customs and to manifest, practise, develop, and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs, and ceremonies. This includes the right to use and cultivate plants and plant-based substances that have psychoactive effects, where these are part of their cultural, spiritual, or religious practices.
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, cultivate, use, and protect and conserve medicinal and other plants and seeds that form a part of their cultural or ethnic identity or part of their spiritual or religious traditions, customs, and ceremonies. This includes plants that have psychoactive effects.

In accordance with these rights, States should:

i. Refrain from interfering with indigenous peoples’ exercise of their cultural, spiritual, and religious practices, including those involving plants that have psychoactive effects.

ii. Adopt appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures to ensure that drug control efforts do not interfere with indigenous peoples’ rights to enjoy their culture and to practise their religion, including with members separated by international borders.

iii. Take measures to protect indigenous communities from actions by private companies and third parties that deny indigenous people their traditional sources of nutrition, medicines, livelihoods, and ceremonies, including those involving plants that have psychoactive effects.

In addition, States should:

iv. Consider exemptions within drug legislation allowing indigenous peoples to use controlled psychoactive substances for traditional, cultural, and religious purposes.

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Implementation

States should:

i. Collect and disseminate appropriate information to enable the formulation and implementation of human rights-compliant drug control laws and policies. These data should be disaggregated by relevant factors, including health status (such as drug dependence), age, sex, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and economic status (including involvement in sex work).

ii. Ensure that data collection for the purpose of drug law and policy formulation, implementation, or other analysis complies with relevant international standards for data protection.

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States should:

i. Consider undertaking a transparent review of drug laws and policies to assess human rights compliance.

ii. Subject all proposed drug control legislation and policies to transparent human rights risk and impact assessments.

iii. Under take a budgetary review to ensure the progressive realisation of the right to health in relation to drug use and dependence.

iv. Carefully consider and justify any cuts in the allocation of resources for drug treatment, harm reduction, and other health services for people who use drugs where such cuts entail retrogressive measures.

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In accordance with these obligations, States in a position to assist should:

i. Consider providing resources for harm reduction, essential controlled medicines, and other health and social services for people who use drugs and who need controlled drugs for pain relief.

ii. Consider providing resources to develop specific viable and sustainable economic alternatives for individuals and communities particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the illicit drug economy.

iii. Adopt clear policy guidelines incorporating human rights standards for the provision of financial and technical aid, for international judicial and law enforcement cooperation in drug-related criminal matters, and for demand reduction and related projects in recipient States.

iv. Exercise due diligence to ensure that international cooperation and assistance provided or received for drug-related enforcement and for demand reduction and related projects is carried out in full compliance with international law and human rights standards and does not contribute, directly or indirectly, to the use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes, to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, or to fostering or perpetuating unlawful discrimination.

States that do not have sufficient capacity or resources to meet all of their human rights obligations should:

i. Seek assistance, including financial and technical assistance, from the international community for harm reduction services, access to essential controlled medicines, and other health and social services for people who use drugs and who need controlled drugs for pain relief.

ii. Seek assistance, including financial and technical assistance, from the international community to develop specific viable and sustainable economic alternatives for individuals and communities particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the illicit drug economy.

iii. Seek assistance, including financial and technical assistance, from the international community for criminal justice system diversion projects and other alternatives to coercive sanctions for drug offences and drug-related offences.

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