A message from our Executive Director: Six drug policy takeaways from 2020


A message from our Executive Director: Six drug policy takeaways from 2020

23 December 2020

2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges and chaos. The global pandemic has been devastating and will have far-reaching consequences in the years to come. Global inequality – already at extreme levels before COVID-19 – has been deeply exacerbated, with the economic burden of lockdowns, unequal access to healthcare and repressive infection control measures being most sharply felt by society’s most marginalised.

That drug policy reform has continued to thrive in this environment is yet another proof of the strength of our movement.

We stand in solidarity with our members, partners, donors and friends in continuing the fight for social justice, for human rights and to end the damaging ‘war on drugs’. The pandemic has shown that we literally depend on each other to survive, to mobilise, and to thrive. But the drug policy movement cannot act on its own. It needs to weave ever greater connections, conversations, and partnerships with other social movements.

To end the year, I would like to share with you six drug policy ‘takeaways’ from the turbulence of 2020:

1. We are resilient.

Although the pandemic has wreaked havoc and government responses have been found wanting, communities and civil society have proved to be resilient, creative and resourceful. In our COVID-19 newsletter series, Stories of Substance, we lifted up inspiring stories from the IDPC network and beyond, from community-led advocacy in India resulting in take-home methadone to outreach and support for prisoners in Nigeria to community organising to ‘build power from the inside’ through mutual aid and harm reduction amongst transgender sex workers in Thailand. The 2020 Support. Don’t Punish Global Day of Action saw thousands mobilise in at least 230 cities of 90 countries, while safely navigating COVID-19 related restrictions.

2. Human rights - now more than ever.

The fight to ensure the visibility of the devastating impacts of drug policies on human rights is ongoing. In 2020, our movement mobilised to respond to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s call for inputs on drug policies and arbitrary detention, and we successfully advocated for a strong focus on human rights within the new EU Drugs Strategy. The International Narcotics Control Board continued to make clear that drug policies must be implemented in line with human rights obligations with a strong statement on International Human Rights Day. However, despite over 100 NGOs calling on the new UNODC Executive Director to also make a statement, disappointingly and problematically, this failed to materialise. Human rights were also absent from the UNODC’s 2020 World Drug Report. To continue to build visibility, we worked with IDPC members and partners on submissions to UN human rights bodies, from Sweden to El Salvador, as well as on the need to achieve human rights accountability in the Philippines.

3. Decarceration is possible and urgent.

The pandemic revealed that states are unable to protect the life and health of people in prison, and raised many questions around the necessity of our incarceration systems. At the outset of the pandemic, we joined forces with many other organisations in the drug reform space and in sister movements to advocate for the urgent reduction of prison populations in Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Latin America. While some governments announced historical measures to decongest detention centres, their implementation has been very poor, and our work on this front will certainly continue next year.

4. Legal regulation without social justice will entrench inequity.

December saw a historic vote at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs which meant that the UN finally recognised the medicinal value of cannabis. The votes that swung the outcome came from countries that have usually taken a harder stance on reforms – namely Thailand, Nepal, Morocco, South Africa and India. These countries have a rich history of traditional use of cannabis, and to some extent their positive vote reclaimed this. Although the vote supports medical cannabis and will accelerate that trend, the colonial legacy of cannabis prohibition remains unchallenged. As cannabis reforms continue, it is increasingly clear that solutions that prioritise profit over people will reinforce the structural oppression that has been entrenched by the ‘war on drugs’. We must strongly advocate for cannabis markets that advance social justice, equity and human rights. The IDPC Principles for the Responsible Legal Regulation of Cannabis brings together a vision elaborated across the network of how legal markets can uphold rights, promote public health, protect the environment and resist corporate power.

5. The momentum for decriminalisation is building.

The 2018 UN Common Position on drug policy, which makes an unequivocal call from the UN System to decriminalise drug use and possession for personal use, has heralded a new phase of reforms. Norway is in the process of considering a progressive decriminalisation proposal which will hopefully pass in 2021. At the sub-national level, Oregon became the first US state to decriminalise the personal possession of all drugs in November, and Vancouver in Canada has just voted to do the same. Ghana passed a new drug law in March that significantly de-escalates the repressive response to possession for personal use, from a prison sentence to a fine that can be waived for community service. Together with TalkingDrugs.org we will continue to track these important developments.

6. We must decolonise drug policies!

This year, the struggle for racial justice has come strongly to the fore. From police brutality to the prohibition of substances traditionally used in the Global South, the connection between colonialism, racism and drug policies are deep, complex, and global. The important renewed prominence of racial justice and indigenous rights paves the way for debates that were previously deemed too radical, such as defunding the police, prison abolition, and others. However, in 2021 we will need to make sure that anti-racism is not only a buzzword, but a permanent pillar of our collective work, and a lever for material change for affected communities.

For 2021 we have planned a busy agenda, as we expand and diversify our work with exciting initiatives, such as the first ever e-course on decriminalisation, or the first edition of the Global Drug Policy Index.

2021 will also be a year of anniversaries that reflect the conflicted history of global drug policy, such as the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Single Convention, the 5th anniversary of UNGASS and the 15th anniversary of IDPC! The six takeaways from 2020 will guide our work for the coming year.

Wishing you a restful break for the close of the year and looking forward to a brighter 2021.

In solidarity,

Ann Fordham
Executive Director,