As the UN celebrates the 60th anniversary of the global  ‘war on drugs’, experts highlight its devastating impacts

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As the UN celebrates the 60th anniversary of the global ‘war on drugs’, experts highlight its devastating impacts

9 April 2021


Embargoed until Monday, 12 April 2021, 00:01, (London – BST)

As the UN celebrates the 60th anniversary of the global ‘war on drugs’, experts highlight its devastating impacts

LONDON, 12 April 2021 - As the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) celebrates the 60th anniversary of the global drug control regime, a new report by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) highlights the shocking health and human rights disaster unfolding across the world in the name of drug control.

Today, IDPC released a new report revealing the widening chasm between UN commitments on health and human rights, and the devastation brought about by punitive drug policies on the ground.

As the annual meeting of the UN CND opens with a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the legal foundation of the international drug control regime, IDPC’s report shows that there is little cause for celebration. Using wide-ranging data from UN, academic and civil society sources, the report illustrates the horrific human toll of the ‘war on drugs’ over the past five years, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • 585,000 preventable drug use related deaths were recorded in 2017, the highest figure on record.
  • A staggering 2.5 million people worldwide are in prison for a drug offence, of which at least 475,000 are incarcerated for personal drug use only. Hundreds of thousands more are detained against their will in forced ‘treatment’.
  • From ‘stop and search’ and mass incarceration to the death penalty, drug law enforcement disproportionately targets women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other marginalised communities, fueling poverty and inequality.
  • Globally, only 1 in 8 people living with drug dependence have access to treatment, while the availability of life-saving harm reduction services is severely restricted.
  • Subsistence farmers of crops like cannabis or coca leaf continue to be subject to violent forced eradication campaigns that deprive them and their families of their livelihoods.
  • 5 billion people worldwide live with limited or no access to pain relief and palliative care due to repressive drug laws.

April 2021 also marks the 5th anniversary of the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs, where all countries in the world committed to adopt a public health, rights-based, and development-oriented approach to drug policy. By comparing these commitments with evidence from the ground, the new IDPC report reveals a widening gap between rhetoric and reality.

‘The 60th anniversary of the global drug regime gives us little cause for celebration’ said Ann Fordham, Executive Director at IDPC. ‘In the past five years, some progress has been made, as countries moved to adopt welcome initiatives on the decriminalisation of people who use drugs, and the legal regulation of cannabis. However, in most parts of the world, governments remain wedded to draconian policies that have had a catastrophic impact on communities, and have resoundingly failed in their stated purpose of eradicating drug markets, or reducing illegal drug use.’

Marie Nougier, Head of Research and Communications at IDPC, said: ‘With this report, we wanted to give a voice to those most affected by punitive drug policies. What communities tell us through our research is that they continue to face criminalisation, extrajudicial killings, the death penalty, acts of torture and ill-treatment, stigma and discrimination, and are systematically denied access to life-saving health services. We cannot wait for another 60 years to align drug policies with health, human rights and development.’


Notes to the editor

Link to the report

  • Taking stock of half a decade of drug policy - An evaluation of UNGASS implementation (Available from Monday, 12 April 2021, 01:05 BST)

Selected visual assets highlighting key data

Folder available here.

  • COVID-19, drug offences and imprisonment
  • Drug related deaths
  • Drug dependence treatment
  • Racial impacts of drug control

Additional background information on the United Kingdom

  • According to ONS data, drug-related deaths in the UK marked a historical record in 2019 (4,393). The UK accounts for 34% of all drug-related deaths in Europe, while Scotland has the highest rate of drug-related mortality in the content.
  • Systemic racism pervades the enforcement of drug laws in the UK, with research showing that black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and search for drugs, although drug use is more prevalent amongst white people.
  • The Lammy Review found that the odds of receiving a prison sentence were around 240% higher for BAME offenders, compared to white offenders.

For further information, please contact:

Ann Fordham

Executive Director

International Drug Policy Consortium

Marie Nougier

Head of Research and Communications

International Drug Policy Consortium

T: +44 7807 077617