The World Forum against Drugs: Stop ignoring the right to health of young people who use drugs

Last month saw the release of the book: “The protection of children from illicit drugs – A minimum human rights standard” presented by the World Forum Against Drugs (WFAD). As is to be expected, the book’s central premise is that a drug-free society is achievable and should be the central objective of every drug policy. But there is no mention of the collateral consequences of this utopian ideal, especially those for young people. No one would dispute the need for drug polices to focus on protecting children and young people – who remain one of the most vulnerable sections of the population in terms of drug related harms. However, this publication shows just how detached from reality the position of the WFAD is.

The majority of the publication’s content is spent criticising a number of UN agencies and civil society organisations. It lambasts WHO, UNICEF, UNODC, UNAIDS and “the unholy trinity of Harm Reduction International / International Harm Reduction Association, Open Society Institute and Human Rights Watch” for attempting to safeguard the human rights of people who use drugs. There is good reason why these UN agencies and civil society organisations, as well as the Committee on the Conventions of the Rights of the Child itself, have come out supporting harm reduction for young people (and in some cases supporting the removal of criminal sanctions against people who use drugs). It is because harm reduction interventions are empirically proven to be the most effective methods to mitigate the harms associated with drug use and thus protect young people from drug use. Ignoring the fact that young people use drugs will not protect them.

WFAD argues that every country that has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child must be obliged to protect and sustain children’s human rights to ensure a drug-free childhood. However, we believe this also requires countries to protect children from the harms associated with drug use, including allowing full access to the appropriate harm reduction services: a measure supported the Committee of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in its concluding observations for Ukraine in 2011, in which it claimed that these measures are in fact the best way to “protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic drugs”.

However, having a child-centred drug policy also requires the protection of children from policies that criminalise their drug use. From what we have seen over the last few years, the majority of young people who use substances (many for only brief periods in their lives) experience a far broader range of harms than WFAD acknowledges – including human rights violations and harassment which can lead to higher-risk behaviours. This, in turn, makes these young people more vulnerable to health problems such as overdose, HIV and hepatitis. Furthermore, the impact of drug convictions, cautions and criminal records on young people is totally ignored by WFAD. In countries around the world, drug charges for the possession of small amounts of substances can result in young people being expelled from school, denied financial aid for higher education or facing barriers to long-term employment.

As part of the on-going “Support. Don’t Punish” campaign, Youth RISE will be launching the “Our Stories” project. The project will publish testimonies from young people around the world, describing their own personal experiences of criminalisation, how it has impacted on their lives, and the realities they face as a consequence of punitive drug policies.

We hope that, by raising and empowering the voices of young people, we can raise awareness about the real (though often hidden) impact of criminalising young people who use drugs. We aim to drive forward a change in how drug issues are viewed, especially among the younger generations who will be integral to future policy formulation. Young people remain a population at risk, and they need to be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Policies restricted to the ideal of obtaining a drug-free society are not only unattainable; their unintended consequences will have serious long-lasting impacts upon the health, human rights and socio-economic status of young people. Humanism, pragmatism and the protection of the health and development of our youth must guide drug policy formulation – not moral crusades.  This requires support, and- not punishment.

If you would like to share how your life has been impacted by drug policies, please contact robin@youthrise.org to find out more information.

Robin Pollard, Operations Coordinator at Youth RISE

For more information, please visit the IDPC website.