The so-called War on Drugs has been lost. So what now?

That’s the vexing question United Nations member states have been grappling with over the past 10 weeks, as they have engaged in intense negotiations over the future of the international response to drugs, in preparation for a UN General Assembly special session in April.

Confronted with the fact that policies pursued over the last 50 years have failed to “eliminate or significantly reduce” illicit drugs, countries are drawing wildly differing conclusions. For some, it is time to try something new; for others, it’s to double down on the criminal law enforcement approach. On opposite sides of this debate are countries like Uruguay – open to legalization and regulation of marijuana – and Russia, which opposes even references to a previously agreed – and spectacularly missed – global goal to reduce drug-related HIV transmission.

Health and human rights are at the center of this polarized debate. The UN drug control conventions were established, along with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Narcotics Control Board, out of concern for the harms drugs can do to the “health and welfare of mankind.” But with a growing body of evidence highlighting the negative impacts on health and human rights of an over reliance on a criminal law enforcement-based response to drugs a critical question has arisen: What does more harm – drugs themselves or the response to them?

In the run-up to the April meeting, Human Rights Watch will publish a series of articles examining the range of serious human rights abuses – from torture and killings in the name of drug control to disproportionate and arbitrary imprisonment of drug users to denying cancer patients access to morphine for pain – the War on Drugs has caused. Ending these abuses need to be at the center of the deliberations at the UN General Assembly session on drugs.

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