Amnesty backs decriminalisation of possession of drugs for personal use

Amnesty international Ireland is supporting calls for the Irish government to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use.

In Ireland, the use of illegal drugs is not a crime, but possession of drugs for personal use is. The Ana Liffey Drug Project’s recently launched its ‘Safer from Harm’ campaign, calling for decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. They want people with drug dependence to have adequate access to the health system rather than be dealt with by the criminal justice system. This is an approach that Amnesty International endorses, so we are supporting their campaign.

Around the world it is clear that the criminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use is part of an ill-conceived strategy to deter the use of drugs. It has destroyed the lives of people who use drugs, their families and other affected communities. It has done little to address the problems associated with the use of drugs.

Why now?

Amnesty International will shortly finalise and publish a new global policy on Drug Control and Human Rights. As part of this policy, AI supports decriminalisation of the use and possession of drugs for personal use. This is an essential part of a state’s obligations to ensure the right to the highest attainable standard of health and to put the protection of public health and human rights at the centre of the its drug control policy.

When accompanied by an expansion of health and other social services to address the problems related to drug use, evidence shows that an approach to drug control based on decriminalising drug use has a beneficial impact on public health, human rights and public security.

A Working Group was established by the government in 2017 “to examine alternative approaches for personal possession of illegal drugs”.  It is due to publish its report shortly, and there are concerns that it might not recommend decriminalising of possession for personal use. We have written to the government to urge it to adopt a decriminalisation approach, as called for by the ‘Safer from Harm’ campaign.

What does a state’s drug policy have to do with human rights?

Drug control policies based on prohibition and criminalisation have left a legacy of violence, disease, mass incarceration, suffering and abuse around the world. The heavy reliance on criminal law and repressive policies has failed to decrease the use and availability of drugs. It has instead exacerbated the risks and harms of using drugs and the violence associated with illicit markets.

Therefore, Amnesty International calls on states to implement new drug control policies that do not rely on punitive approaches, and that are consistent with international human rights law and standards.

Numerous human rights violations have taken place across the world as a direct consequence of the implementation of repressive drug control policies and drug enforcement operations. These include the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences, police abuses, discrimination, torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary detentions, inhumane conditions of detention and violations of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health.

Is AI saying that drugs aren’t harmful?

No. Amnesty International recognises the risks that illicit drugs can pose to individuals and societies, and the obligation that states have to adopt adequate measures to protect people from the harmful effects of drugs.

However, it is precisely because drugs are risky that governments need to take measures to better protect the rights of every individual, including people who use drugs. Drug control must not be used to justify human rights violations, and should serve instead as a means to realise the right to health and other human rights.

Therefore, Amnesty International encourages states to adopt more humane, effective and evidence-based drug control policies that will protect public health and human rights.

Is Amnesty International calling for anything else?

Yes. While the decriminalisation of people who use drugs is important, this must be accompanied by an expansion of health and other social services to address drug-related problems.

Also needed are awareness campaigns to prevent or delay children’s first use of drugs for non-medical purposes, and to avert drug dependence and other harms that may arise from the use of drugs. States must also take measures to address the underlying socio-economic causes that lead people to engage in drug use or the drug trade. These underlying causes include poverty, discrimination, unemployment, ill-health, denial of education and lack of housing.

While we have written to the Irish government to recommend it decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use, we will make further recommendations on Ireland’s drug control policy in due course.

Does AI think people who use drugs should be forced to have treatment as an alternative to prison?

No. It has been reported that the government’s Working Group may recommend the retention of existing criminal law offences for the possession of drugs for personal use for the purpose of diverting people from the justice system to treatment services. We are concerned at the risks this approach would pose for people’s human rights.

Evidence has shown that diversion programmes often exacerbate the conflation of drug use and drug dependence – not everyone who uses drugs has or develops a dependence on drugs – and end up forcing individuals to undertake treatment when it is not medically indicated.

Moreover, while people who use drugs may indeed benefit from access to health and social services to reduce drug-related harms, providing these services only after being in contact with the criminal justice system has a chilling effect that deters those in need from seeking help for fear of prosecution.

Conversely, decriminalising the use and possession of drugs for personal use facilitates access to health and social services that people who use drugs may need to reduce drug-related harms, including prevention, information, harm reduction, treatment and rehabilitation services on a voluntary, non-discriminatory basis, and based on informed consent.

Isn’t Amnesty concerned that the decriminalisation of drugs will lead more people to use drugs?

No, because decriminalisation, when accompanied by an expansion of health and other social services, can actually help to decrease levels of drug use and reduce the risks and harms of drugs.

Such programmes should include awareness campaigns to prevent and delay the first use of drugs, including efforts specifically tailored for children and adolescents. Heavy reliance on criminal law and repressive policies around the world have clearly failed to reduce the problems associated with drug use and to limit the availability of drugs.