by Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, US Program

Nearly every country in the world plays a part—as producer, consumer, or transit point—in the multibillion-dollar illicit drug trade that supplies more than 150 million people every year and keeps on growing.

To combat this trade, many countries over recent decades have launched so-called “wars on drugs” that entail crackdowns on participants large and small in the drug business, including harsh penalties for users.

Human Rights Watch has long documented the widespread human rights abuses resulting from this approach: in the United States, the devastation that disproportionate prison sentences for drug offenses have wrought on individuals and their families and disturbing racial disparities in drug law enforcement; in Mexico, the killings committed in the name of combatting drugs; in Canada, the US, and Russia, how fear of criminal law enforcement deters people who use drugs from accessing necessary health services, exposing them to violence, discrimination, and illness; in Afghanistan and Colombia, how narcotics production has fueled armed groups opposed or allied to the government; in India, Ukraine, and Senegal, how cancer patients suffer severe pain due to drug control regulations that render morphine inaccessible; and in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, the “drug rehabilitation centers” where people are subjected to torture, forced labor, and sexual abuse.

But there was a growing sense within Human Rights Watch that this approach did not go far enough—that the problem did not lie merely with ill-considered policies or their abusive execution. Rather, the criminalization of drugs itself seemed to be inherently problematic. Especially when it came to personal possession and use, imposing the full force of the criminal justice system to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate appeared contrary to the human rights to privacy and personal autonomy that underlie many rights.

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