Banner drop by Canadian activists at the 2017 International Harm Reduction Conference.

Photo: Nigel Brunsdon


Whether it is overdose, communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, untreated pain, ineffective drug treatment, stigma and discrimination, or torture, punitive ‘war on drugs’ policies cause and exacerbate harms and violate the universal human right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Our work promotes the prioritisation of health outcomes over punishment, ensuring access to adequately-funded and evidence-based harm reduction, treatment and prevention services, as well as controlled medicines.

According to UN data, an estimated 270 million people worldwide – 5 percent of the adult population – use illicit drugs. Of these, an estimated 36 million people experience harmful drug use and/or dependence, and around 11 million people inject drugs. Tragically, there are 585,000 deaths attributed to the use of drugs every year, with 42 million years of ‘healthy’ life lost as a result. People who use drugs are 29 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population.

An evidence-based harm reduction approach can significantly lessen and repair this damage. Harm reduction takes a pragmatic and non-judgemental approach to supporting people who use drugs, and encompasses a range of practices and services including needle and syringe programmes, drug consumption rooms, medication assisted treatments, drug checking, overdose prevention, and much more. It includes peer-led and peer-delivered services, and is widely supported and promoted by UN agencies, governments, donors and academics – in both prison and community settings.

But drug policies do not only harm people who use drugs. Many internationally controlled drugs are also medicines – with many being classed as essential medicines. As a result of these controls and regulations, logistical and financial barriers, and the promotion of a culture of fear of opioids, more than 80 percent of the world’s population have low or non-existent access to opioid medications for pain control. This is another clear failing of the international drug control system.

Finally, punitive drug policies can also impact on individual physical and mental health through, among many others: the use of harmful chemicals during crop eradication; mass incarceration; violence, including gender-based violence and state violence; and the fuelling of intersecting systems of oppression (including poverty and racism).

The international drug conventions are premised on furthering 'the health and welfare of [hu]mankind', so governments must prioritise health outcomes over punitive measures – focusing on, and funding, evidence-based harm reduction, treatment and prevention services, and ensuring access to essential medicines.

Drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong governmental policies have destroyed many more.
Kofi Annan, United Nations General Secretary (1938-2018)