By Ricky Gunawan, Global Drug Policy Program, Open Society Foundations

In the recent 47th session of the Human Rights Council, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a study relating to drug policies. In this report, the Working Group examines how punitive drug policies have resulted in a large and disproportionate increase in detention and imprisonment for drug-related offences worldwide. The Working Group further observed that drug law enforcement often targets poor people and vulnerable groups, such as women, and people of African descent. They call for the decriminalization of drug use and possession, acquisition, or cultivation of drugs for personal use. 

In the same Human Rights Council’s session, the UN High Commissioner published a seminal report that analyzes systemic racism against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies globally. She identifies that the conduct of special police operations in the context of the war on drugs is a driver to police-related fatalities that have occurred most frequently. In this report, the High Commissioner calls for removing laws and practices that incentivize racial discrimination in law enforcement, including reforming drug-related laws and policies.

These reports are important and opportune for contemporary human rights and drug policy reform movements, for at least two reasons. First, in times of long overdue racial awakening, it affirms that the war on drugs is a major building block that continues to sustain racist and abusive policing globally. In Indonesia, in its three rounds of execution in 2015-2016, nine of eighteen people executed for drug offences were all African nationals. In the US, Black people are almost four times as likely as their white counterparts to get arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar rates of consumption. Reading the two reports, one may infer that comprehensive efforts to uproot racial injustice and discrimination in law enforcement entails dismantling the punitive drug policies that are historically and intrinsically racist.