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The UN and the WHO Call for the Decriminalization of Drugs

The United Nations and the World Health Organization have recently voiced their desires for drugs to be decriminalized. Specifically, in a joint release that focused on ending healthcare discrimination, the organizations called for the "reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes." This included, among other things, the use of drugs or the "possession of drugs for personal use." Member states, however, remain adamant that narcotics be made illegal.

This is not the first time the WHO has called for drugs to be decriminalized. In the past, the organization has supported this call with their belief that it would lead to a reduction in the number of people in the country who contract HIV through intravenous drug use. The UN has made a similar claim in the past, though it has limited its call in particular to being a solution to the overall problem of drug abuse.

Last year, nations gathered together for a meeting at the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs. However, despite strong concerns from several countries, these nations maintained that we should take a criminal approach to narcotics. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres disagreed, saying in a statement last month that we should be tackling the narcotics problem through "prevention and treatment," instead of criminalizing the drugs themselves. In other words, we should be going after the problem, not the symptom.

Guterres was actually the Prime Minister of Portugal when Portugal launched its drug decriminalization program. The program also included a significant amount of resources insofar as projects related to drug prevention and treatment. As a result, Portugal actually saw its number of fatal overdoses fall to one of the lowest rates in Europe, and there was also a reduction in the number of newly reported HIV cases among intravenous drug users.

Yury Fedotov, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, warned, however, that the illegal drug trade problem is rather complicated. Said Fedotov: "The nexus between drugs, crime and terrorism and reveals a shifting pattern of relationships…As new threats appear, including spreading methamphetamine and new psychoactive substances, old ones continue to thrive. Business models are evolving too, with cybercrime and the darknet increasingly playing a role."

There is, however, a growing support worldwide for the decriminalization of drugs, particularly the elimination of penalties for drug usage and the possession of drugs. Some of the medical, public health, and human rights groups that have advocated for decriminalization include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the International Red Cross, the NAACP, and the American Public Health Association.

Polls taken of voters in the presidential primaries in such states as Maine, South Carolina, and New Hampshire found that a significant majority in each state favors ending arrests for these crimes. The first decriminalization bill was introduced in Maryland last year, and a similar version was reintroduced in early 2017. Suchitra Rajagopalan, a research coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance, was quoted as saying:

"Not only does drug decriminalization drastically reduce the number of people mired in the quicksand of the criminal justice system – it also, as the UN/WHO statement highlights, vastly improve public health. It decreases the stigma against people who use drugs and addresses the discrimination they historically face."