In deliberations on drug policy in United Nations fora, a consensus has emerged that drug use and drug dependence should be treated primarily as public health concerns rather than as crimes. But what some member states mean by “public health approach” merits scrutiny. Some governments that espouse treating people who use drugs as “patients, not criminals” still subject them to prison-like detention in the name of drug-dependence treatment or otherwise do not take measures to provide scientifically sound treatment and humane social support to those who need them. Even drug treatment courts, which the U.S. and other countries hold up as examples of a public health approach to drug dependence, can serve rather to tighten the hold of the criminal justice sector on concerns that should be addressed in the health sector. The political popularity of demonisation of drugs and visibly repressive approaches is an obvious challenge to leadership for truly health-oriented drug control. This commentary offers some thoughts for judging whether a public health approach is worthy of the name and cautions drug policy reformers not to rely on facile commitments to health approaches that are largely rhetorical or that mask policies and activities not in keeping with good public health practise.

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