Talking about human rights violations in the name of drug control – IDPC/Talking Drugs Magazine, 1

Drug policy is too often abstract. Government policy makers and Vienna-based diplomats spend much of their time debating drug law ideology, while forgetting the realities of people badly hurt by the laws and policies they create. That's why IDPC, in collaboration with Talking Drugs, initiated a series of magazines which feature personal stories behind the policy debates to give a flavour of how policies affect the real, lived experiences of people on the ground.

The stories told in the inaugural IDPC magazine are a stark reminder of why the drug laws of many countries across the globe need to be fixed. Each story tells us of the disproportionate harm suffered by individuals, of the badly focused resources targeting low-level “offending”, and of the human rights abuses inflicted in the name of drug control.

The consequences of a zero tolerance approach to drugs have often been more harmful than drug use itself, with overly punitive drug laws contributing to serious violations of human rights. Shifting resources towards prevention, treatment and harm reduction is more effective in reducing drug related harms than relying solely on the criminal justice system.

Such a rebalancing also frees up law enforcement, courts and prisons to focus on more serious crime such as large scale drug trafficking, while removing barriers for dependent drug users to access treatment. Recent advances in research around drug dependency support the notion that drug use should be viewed through a health and social policy lens instead of a criminal justice one. In recent years, several countries have sought to adopt more humane, evidence-based and public health focused drug law. The Netherlands and Portugal are among the few countries that have created drug laws which are ‘fit for purpose’.

My country, New Zealand, has an opportunity to create healthier drug law. Our obsolete, 35-year-old Misuse of Drugs Act is undergoing a “first principles” review conducted by the Law Commission, our government’s independent legal brains-trust.

In their review, launched last month, the Commission gave this blunt yet accurate assessment of our drug law: it “no longer provides a coherent and effective legislative framework for responding to the misuse of psychoactive drugs… The Act is now outdated and does not reflect current knowledge and understanding about drug use and related health, social and economic harms.” The same can be said for most drug laws around the world.

I won’t detail the Commission’s well considered law reform options here, but I do recommend that you follow what is happening in New Zealand. In the meantime, reflect on the stories that follow, and remind yourself of the pain that inhumane and harmful drug policies and laws cause to so many people around the world.

Ross Bell is the director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation