What the UN agencies and Secretaries-General say

This  section sets out recent statements by key UN agencies and recent UN Secretaries-General on decriminalisation. 

The Chief Executives Board of the UN

The Chief Executives Board of the UN, representing 31 UN agencies, has adopted a common position on drug policy that endorses decriminalisation of possession and use. 

January 18th 2019: A new position statement on drug policy from the the United Nations Chief Executives Board (CEB), chaired by the UN Secretary General and representing 31 UN agencies, has expressed strong and unanimous support for the decriminalisation of possession and use of drugs. The statement calls on member states to “promote alternatives to conviction and punishment in appropriate cases, including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use,”

While a number of UN agencies have made similar calls in the past, this CEB statement means it is now the common position for the entire UN family of agencies. Crucially, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – the lead UN agency on drug policy – has also endorsed the position; finally clarifying their previously ambiguous position on decriminalisation.

The statement also positions drug policy clearly within public health, human rights, and sustainable development agendas. It represents a welcome and significant step towards ‘system wide coherence’ within the UN system on drug policy.  

International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) INCB

'There is no treaty obligation to incarcerate drug users who have committed minor offences. The conventions provide for flexibility on the part of States in determining appropriate sanctions, including non-punitive or non-custodial measures, for instance for drug possession for personal use'.  Werner Sipp, President, INCB (2016) 

unodcUN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

Practical steps can be taken to promote an effective human rights-based criminal justice response to the drug problem:

  • Provide for and implement a wide range of non-custodial measures (particularly for children), so as to apply alternatives to conviction or punishment for possession for personal consumption offences and appropriate cases of a minor nature;
  • Implement laws and policies which ensure that sentences are proportionate to the offences committed and take into account the rehabilitative needs of the offender and the interests of society;

In 2015 a UNODC briefing paper was prepared calling clearly and unequivocally for decriminalisation.  UNODC planned to release this briefing paper at the Harm Reduction International conference in Malaysia, but withdrew it, reportedly owing to pressure from UN member states. Embargoed copies, however, had been released to the media and were published on the Internet.  Yuri Fedotov, Executive Director, UNODC (2016)


Joint UN Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS)

The overarching purpose of drug control is first and foremost to ensure the health, well-being and security of individuals, while respecting their agency and human rights at all times:

  • Commit to treating people who use drugs with support and care, rather than punishment. UNAIDS believes that this objective can only be achieved by implementing alternatives to criminalization, such as decriminalization and stopping incarceration of people for consumption and possession of drugs for personal us
  • Adapt and reform laws to ensure that people who use drugs do not face punitive sanctions for the use of drugs or possession of drugs for personal use. Countries should consider taking a range of measures including alternatives to criminalization, incarceration, penalization and other penalties solely based on drug use or possession of drugs for personal use. These measures include decriminalization, steps to reduce incarceration or removal of administrative penalties and de-penalization.  UNAIDS (2015) A public health and rights approach to drugs

UUN human rightsN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR)

Consideration should be given to removing obstacles to the right to health, including by decriminalising the personal use and possession of drugs; moreover, public health programmes should be increased.

  • Ethnic minorities and women who possess or use drugs, or who are ‘microdistributors’, should be protected against discrimination. Consideration should be given to reforming laws and policies to address the disparate impact of drug policies on ethnic minorities and women. Providing training to law enforcement, health personnel and social service workers who come into contact with drug users should also be considered, to eliminate discrimination.
  • Taking into account the severe impact that a conviction for a drug-related offence can have on a person’s life, consideration should be given to alternatives to the prosecution and imprisonment of persons for minor, non-violent drug-related offences. Reforms aimed at reducing overincarceration should take into account such alternatives
  • The rights of the child should be protected by focusing on prevention and communicating in a child-friendly and age-appropriate manner, including on the risks of transmitting HIV and other blood-borne viruses through injecting drug use. Children should not be subjected to criminal prosecution, but responses should focus on health education, treatment, including harm reduction programmes, and social reintegration UN Human Rights Commissioner (2015)

UN Secretaries-General

Kofi AnnanKofi Annan 1997 - 2006 (2016)

In what other areas of public health do we criminalize patients in need of help. Kofi Annan

The tendency in many parts of the world to stigmatize and incarcerate drug users has prevented many from seeking medical treatment. In what other areas of public health do we criminalize patients in need of help?  Punitive measures have sent many people to prison, where their drug use has worsened. A criminal record for a young person for a minor drug offence can be a far greater threat to their well-being than occasional drug use.

The original intent of drug policy, according to the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, was to protect the ‘health and welfare of mankind.’ We need to refocus international and national policy on this key objective. 

First, we must decriminalize personal drug use. The use of drugs is harmful and reducing those harms is a task for the public health system, not the courts. This must be coupled with the strengthening of treatment services, especially in middle and low-income countries...

descarga.jpg_1718483346 Ban Ki-Moon 2007 - 2016 (2015)

Our shared response to this challenge is founded on the international drug control conventions. In full compliance with human rights standards and norms, the United Nations advocates a careful re-balancing of the international policy on controlled drugs. We must consider alternatives to criminalization and incarceration of people who use drugs and focus criminal justice efforts on those involved in supply. We should increase the focus on public health, prevention, treatment and care, as well as on economic, social and cultural strategies.