In an attempt to reduce the scale of illicit drug markets, governments have often relied heavily on the incarceration of drug offenders – in the hope that such punishments will reduce demand for drugs and the global drug market. As a result, increasing numbers of people have been arrested and sent to prison because of disproportionate drug laws, the use of mandatory minimum sentences, and pre-trial detention mechanisms. This strategy has been ineffective in reducing the numbers of people involved in illicit drug production, trafficking and use, and is associated with wide-ranging and serious financial, health and social costs.

Person arrested for possession of a syringe in Ukraine

Drug policy impacts across the whole spectrum of the criminal justice system – including law makers, law enforcement, court systems, correctional facilities, and probation and parole. Some governments have now developed alternative strategies to incarcerations, which have been helpful at reducing the numbers of drug offenders in prison. Diversion mechanisms at arrest, at prosecution or at sentencing have been designed around the world to reduce the burdening of the criminal justice system with minor, non-violent drug offences, and ensure that the courts can focus on high-level and dangerous criminals instead (for more information, please read Chapter 2 of the IDPC Drug Policy Guide).

Despite these attempts at reducing prison overcrowding, many drug offenders do still end up in prison, including large numbers of people who use drugs. During incarceration, individuals can face dramatically elevated risks in terms of HIV, hepatitis and other harms. It is therefore crucial that they have access to adequate health services (including harm reduction and evidence-based drug dependence treatment) in these settings – as recommended by the United Nations. Yet only ten countries around the world implement needle and syringe programmes, and only 41 countries have prison-based opioid substitution therapy programmes.