Our Perspectives


Laws criminalizing drug possession can cause more harm

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Coca farmers in BoliviaCoca farmers sell coca leaves at a market in Villa 14 de Septiembre village in Bolivia. Photo: Carlos Cazalis/Corbis

In many countries, a criminal record, even for a minor offense, can have serious implications. Being convicted of a crime makes you ineligible for certain jobs, social programmes or benefits or from even being able to exercise your right to vote.

A criminal record can also severely limit the ability to travel to certain countries and can result in the loss of custody of minor children. As prison conditions are often poor and health care services limited, a custodial sentence can have negative impacts on the person’s health.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has identified illicit drugs and crime as a “severe impediment” to achieving sustainable development. But poorly devised drug control policies can also be harmful to people and societies.

This is why UNDP works with governments to develop policies to address poverty, inequality and insecurity – the root causes of much involvement in the drug trade – and to foster human development as well as public safety.

Laws criminalizing drug possession for personal use and other non-violent, low-level drug offences can end up driving a wedge between citizens and their governments. Drug users are reluctant to seek out harm reduction services, putting them at increased risk of HIV, hepatitis C, tuberculosis and death by overdose. Prison sentences for women can even result in the incarceration of their infants and young children, who stay with them for all or part of their sentence.

Another area where the shortcomings of many drug control policies are evident is that of controlled medicines. Overly restrictive drug control regulations and practices have effectively excluded 5.5 billion people – approximately 75 percent of the world’s population – from access to essential medicines like morphine to treat pain. 

Many countries are exploring or initiating law and policy reforms with the aim of giving greater prominence to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by UN Members States in September 2015 and enshrined in numerous human rights treaties.

Some of the reforms address the social harms of traditional drug policies on the poor and most marginalized. This includes providing alternatives to arrest and incarceration for minor drug offences, harm reduction programmes, decriminalization of drug users and small-scale producers and increased access to pain medication.

One example is the case of Jamaica, which decriminalized the possession and use of small amounts of cannabis and legalized its cultivation and consumption for religious, medicinal and research purposes. Jamaica also moved to permit expungement of convictions for the personal possession or use of small quantities of cannabis.

These decisions were prompted, in part, by concerns about the consequences of criminalization on the long-term prospects of at-risk young men. Getting ensnared in the legal system for a relatively minor infraction could undermine their access to, for example, decent employment as envisioned by SDG 8.

Jamaica’s reforms recognize that the connection between drugs and crime is not always straightforward. The new policies aim to put people first and promote citizens’ human development. The Jamaican example, and others described in a recent UNDP discussion paper, will be important as more countries look to make evidence informed, development sensitive changes to drug policy.


This post was originally published by IPS.

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