Responding to the harms associated with drug use and the illicit drug trade is one of the greatest social policy challenges of our time. All aspects of this challenge have human rights implications.

The drugs issue cuts across the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and multiple Sustainable Development Goals, including ending poverty, reducing inequalities, and, of course, improving health, with its targets on drug use, HIV, and other communicable diseases. Goal 16 on peace, justice, and strong institutions is particularly important, requiring attention to human rights across the Sustainable Development Goals. Since the late 1990s, United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolutions have acknowledged that ‘countering the world drug problem’ must be carried out ‘in full conformity’ with ‘all human rights and fundamental freedoms’. This has been reaffirmed in every major UN political declaration on drug control since, and in multiple resolutions adopted by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.2 The reality, however, has not always lived up to this important commitment.

Sustainable, rights-based action on drug control requires shared standards from which to begin. Yet there remains a lack of clarity as to what human rights law requires of States in the context of drug control law, policy, and practice. The International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy are the result of a three-year consultative process to address this gap.

The Guidelines highlight the measures States should undertake or refrain from undertaking in order to comply with their human rights obligations, while taking into account their concurrent obligations under the international drug control conventions: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (as amended); the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances; and the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.3 Critically, they do not invent new rights. They apply existing human rights law to the legal and policy context of drug control in order to maximise human rights protections, including in the interpretation and implementation of the drug control conventions.

The Guidelines are not a ‘toolkit’ for a model drug policy. Rather, they respect the diversity of States and their legitimate prerogative to determine their national policies in line with applicable human rights law. States always retain the freedom to apply more favourable human rights protections than those provided for under international law. The Guidelines are therefore a reference tool for those working to ensure human rights compliance at local, national, and international levels, be they parliamentarians, diplomats, judges, policy makers, civil society organisations, or affected communities.