A recent report from the Health and Human Rights (HHR) Journal, “The Case for International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Control,” outlines how international human rights and drug policy are beginning to align worldwide, with the hope of creating guidelines that could close the human rights gap and eventually point the way to drug laws and policies that would respect, protect and fulfill human rights.
The U.S., which has always been considered a leader in international drug policy reform, is dealing with a disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, the damage resulting from the failed war on drugs that violated human rights, and the potential of a return to the same failed drug policies.
The value of human rights aligned with common sense drug policy is part of the guiding principle for one of the more popular cannabis descheduling bills presented this year – New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s “Marijuana Justice Act of 2017.”
There is a lot of work to do before creating those hoped-for UN guidelines. The HHR report cites the various UN conventions for drug policy and international control treaties, the last one in 1998, which contribute directly to human rights risk and violations, and are known as “suppression conventions.”
Suppression regimes obligate the states to use their domestic laws, including criminal laws, to punish drug users and are seen as “important legal mechanisms for the globalization of penal norms.” But these suppression treaties offer no guidance about treatment or punishment for drug offenders, leading to a “no-holds-barred ethos” into domestic drug control, where “floors have been established with no ceilings.”
The cumulative effect is that the human rights impact of drug control span all regions of the world, “engaging in the full spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, affecting the health and welfare of people and communities,” the report states. This includes property forfeitures, invasion of privacy rights through police raids, warrant-less searches, unfair treatment while incarcerated and sometimes cruel and unusual punishment.
Paul Hunt, a lawyer and human rights activist quoted in the report, commented that it is imperative that the international drug control system and the complex international human rights system that has evolved since 1948 “cease to behave as though they exist in parallel universes.”
Today, the situation is changing – although slowly. Human rights advocates and some UN member states are paying more attention to drug control issues, and drug control agencies are paying more attention to human rights issues. In 2015, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a study on the human rights impact of the world drug problem. At other meetings at the UN, notably the UN General Assembly Special Session about the world drug problem in 2016, human rights treaty bodies and special procedures again forcefully called for rights-based reform of international drug policy.
But, according to the report, there is still quite a gap between talking about the problem and doing something about it. A key tool would be the development and implementation of international guidelines on human rights and drug control – a document that would offer critical guidance to advocates, governments, intergovernmental organizations, and development partners on preventing human rights violations linked to drug control or enforcement. “This would create a powerful human rights-based counterbalance to the “no-hold-barred ethos” of drug control,” the report stated, adding that there is already evidence of the success of this approach with international human rights guidelines on such issues as protections against abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity. “Such guidelines have been used to inform both legislative and judicial decisions and the conduct of various state actors, thereby advancing law, policy and practice in ways consistent with states’ human rights obligations.”
It is hoped that by adopting guidelines, more common-sense treatment of those arrested for consumption of a federally illegal substance will become more widespread, especially in states where drug offenses are treated with much harsher penalties than they are in the U.S.
Perhaps more legislation along the lines of Senator Booker’s bill can help guide the way.