Social Risks of Criminalisation


Having reviewed the international evidence, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health in 2010 identified a wide range of possible adverse effects on a drug user’s life chances. These effects are found particularly in countries where ‘the “war on drugs” is zealously pursued or drug laws are enforced stringently’.

  • In Eastern Europe, although 70% of reported cases of HIV occurred among people who injected drugs, this group comprised only 39% of the total population of people living with HIV who were receiving ARV therapy. Although this may be attributed mainly to structural inequalities, the UN Special Rapporteur noted cases of health-care providers denying ARV treatment to people who use drugs, in direct contravention of a right-to-health approach.
  • Individuals may be denied access to other medical treatments on the grounds of their prior or current drug use, although evidence does not exist to justify the denial of such treatment. For example, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland the UN Special Rapporteur noted that past or current users of drugs had been denied treatment for the hepatitis C virus, on the basis that they would not adhere to treatment. 
  • The stigma created or reinforced through punitive enforcement or treatment regimes may also increase health risks. Targeted abuse and violence towards people who inject drugs by authorities may increase users’ risk of physical and mental illness. The UN Special Rapporteur noted that policing practices ranging from surveillance to use of excessive force have been used on vulnerable and marginalised populations, and ‘these people ultimately internalise this social suffering and become complicit in their own subordination’.
  • The 2014 UK Home Office report on the international evidence regarding the impact of decriminalisation of drug use described a study by academics at the University of Essex on the economics of cannabis regulation, which attempted to quantify the effects of criminal justice ‘scarring’, i.e.  the economic impacts on the individual of having a criminal record. Based on assumptions about employability and income, the study estimated that a criminal record led to a 19% reduction in average earnings.

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UN Special Rapporteur, August 2010, Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health

Home Office (UK) Drugs: International Comparators October 2014