UNODC's Call to Decriminalize Drug User-Dealers Highlights Need to Go Beyond Possession & Use

Lost in the headlines and the furor around the recently leaked United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) position paper calling for drug decriminalization was a look at just how progressive this paper is with its incorporation of the little-explored user-dealer dynamic.

Much has been written of the significance of UNODC joining the rest of the UN family calling for the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use, with a great deal of attention paid to politics; the agency’s attempt to distance itself from the paper once it leaked into the public domain last month, and journalistic pondering as to why it backed out of an alleged plan to officially release it at the International Harm Reduction Conference.

Amid this, was a skirting over the substance of the two-pager, and thus a failure to grasp the progressiveness of the position. Yes, other UN agencies -- among them WHO, UNAIDS, OHCHR and UNDP – have come out in favor of decriminalization. However, none have gone beyond possession for personal use. Contained with UNODC’s paper, though, was this paragraph:

"Small drug related offenses, such as drug dealing to maintain personal drug use or to survive in a very marginalized environment, could be interpreted as drug related offenses of a ‘minor nature’, as mentioned in the international drug control conventions. These cases should receive rehabilitation opportunities, social support and care, and not punishment."

In adding the above paragraph, UNODC broached a poorly conceptualized notion of the drug dealer, breaking the stereotype that this person feeds off of others’ use in order to profit, something which is simply not always the case. A number of people engaged in low-level supply do so simply to fund their own use, a reality that is too often overlooked.

A study released earlier this year, authored by Leah Moyle and Ross Coomber, is among the few that have explored the so-called user-dealer dynamic. Through interviewing 30 heroin and crack cocaine user-dealers in England, Moyle and Coomber found a heavily marginalized group engaged in the drug trade, typically selling only to people they knew in order to avoid committing other offenses such as robbery, with many having a moral objection to engaging in the latter.

Few if any of the interviewees made any discernable profit from selling as the proceeds were used to directly fund their own drug dependency.

The study concluded that, "user-dealers require a more proportionate and tailored sentencing approach, that appropriately acknowledges their distinct social context and their motivations for choosing supply over other acquisitive crimes." 

A separate study of user-dealers conducted by Vincent Benso in Paris found that because of the strict criminalization of drug dealing this group faces many obstacles to accessing harm reduction services due to the fear of arrest and imprisonment.

Considering the above research, it is key that we consider whether calls for the decriminalization of possession for personal use alone are too narrow. If looking to mitigate the harms of punitive drug laws on impacted groups then this conception of decriminalization needs to be broadened to include those who cultivate illicit crops and those who deal drugs to fund their use because of a very limited range of options.

As Moyle and Coomber concluded:

"[U]ser-dealing may represent for addicted drug users a practice that is perceived [as] the best choice in a very limited range of options."

Far more work needs to be done in order to gain a concrete understanding of this area of the drug trade. Kudos to UNODC for being progressive enough to broach the issue -- now we can only hope the agency officially backs its own paper and thus sparks a much needed review of the breadth decriminalization calls should have.