Vulnerable communities


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 cited evidence highlighting the disproportionate impact on vulnerable and marginalised communities, such as prison populations, of the criminalisation of drug use.

Punitive drug policies impact disproportionately on communities that are already vulnerable.

In the United States, African-Americans were found to be arrested at consistently higher rates than white Americans, although the rates of offences committed were comparable between these groups.  Additionally, over 80% of arrests were for possession of drugs, rather than sales. Accumulation of such minor offences could lead to incarceration and further marginalisation of these already vulnerable individuals, including increasing their health-related risks. 

The Special Rapporteur reported that over 9 million people were being held in penal institutions worldwide. In many prisons around the world, rates of HIV infection were noted to be several times higher than in the mainstream community. This was attributed to injecting drug use prior to imprisonment, as well as risk factors within these populations, such as poverty and marginalisation. The prevalence of hepatitis infections within prisons was also high, with hepatitis C infection rates exceeding those of HIV. 

Once in prison, high rates of injecting drug use, combined with a lack of access to opiate substitution treatment and sterile injecting equipment, created enormous risks for inmates. This risk was then passed on to members of the public when prisoners were released. According to the UN Special Rapporteur, failure to implement effective harm-reduction programmes and drug-dependence treatment in prison settings violated the prisoner’s right to health.

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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