'J,' a 28-year-old single mother of six, agreed to carry drugs into a Costa Rican prison in exchange for money to feed her family.
"If I didn't provide for my children, they would have died of hunger. It's the easy money that always conquers you because you never think about the consequences at the moment. You only think of what you're going to bring home and give to them," she said.
She changed her mind at the last moment and gave the drugs to prison guards instead. She was arrested, tried, and sentenced to more than five years in prison.
"It has not worked."
Sadly, J's experience is far from an isolated incident. For the past several decades, many governments have waged an increasingly punitive—and futile—war on drugs. Punitive approaches to the drug trade are often based on ideology, not evidence; ultimately, they have not significantly reduced the drug trade. In the words of the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; "Drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrongheaded governmental policies have destroyed many more. I think it's obvious that after 40 years of war on drugs, it has not worked."
The consequences are deep and far-ranging: more violence, more human rights abuses, and an erosion of public health. The people most affected are the ones who are already the most marginalized: rural inhabitants, indigenous peoples, racial minorities, young people and women.
Many are employed on the lowest rungs of the drug trade, transporting or selling small quantities; but they often carry the greatest risk, and suffer the worst consequences, including severe criminal penalties, as those with greater involvement.
A new way of thinking
Now, a growing body of research indicates that countries fare better when they choose interventions based on human rights and shaped by evidence on what works. A recently released UNDP paper highlights the new approaches.
At least 26 countries have removed criminal penalties for possession of drugs for personal non-medical use, either in law or practice; some for all drugs and others only for cannabis. In 2018, the highest courts of Mexico and South Africa ruled that criminalization of cultivation or possession of adult cannabis use violated the right to privacy.
Costa Rica has reformed its criminal laws to take into account the situation of women drug offenders, permitting judges to reduce sentences below the minimum where poverty, caretaking responsibilities, disability or gender-based violence influenced the commission of the crime. Although she was given a five-year prison sentence, 'J' was released after four months, benefiting from a change in Costa Rica's drug law that reduced prison sentences for the crime of bringing drugs into prisons.
Alternatives to conviction and punishment
The United Nations system has recently released a position paper calling for decriminalization as an alternative to conviction and punishment for possession of illicit drugs for personal non-medical use. The paper also calls for the greater use of human rights and evidence-based policies in drug control.
What has been missing so far is a comprehensive guide on what a rights-based drug policy could look like. The international guidelines on human rights and drug policy are being launched today during the high-level segment of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna by UNDP, UNAIDS and WHO, with the support of the governments of Germany and Switzerland. The guidelines are a blueprint for how countries can systematically integrate a human rights framework into drug control.