Drug control policies are failing.  

Decades of harsh laws that punish and stigmatize people who use drugs and others involved in the drug trade have led to mass incarceration, disease, suffering and violence. Criminalizing drugs does not decrease their use or supply. Instead, it drives the trade underground, increases the harms of using drugs and fuels organized crime, corruption and violence.  

The prohibition of drugs directly impacts our right to health. People who use drugs are denied access to medical treatment or are deterred from seeking medical assistance for fear of being reported to the authorities. This increases the risk of overdose and other threats to their life and health.  

Drug policies designed to punish people exacerbate the risks and harms associated with drug use. These policies can lead to increased transmissions of HIV and other diseases. They also obstruct access to drugs for medical purposes, including for pain relief and palliative care, resulting in further harm and suffering for millions of patients. 

someone is participating in a march and is holding the peace sign in the air. They are wearing a wide brimmed hat, sunglasses and are smoking.
People demonstrate for the legalization of cannabis in Bogota, Colombia on May 6, 2023.

What is the “war on drugs”?

The term “war on drugs” was first used in 1971 by US President Richard Nixon with his aggressive and discriminatory campaign to enforce drug prohibition. Since then, it has been used by many governments around the world to launch crackdowns on people who use drugs and reduce the trafficking of drugs. These campaigns rely on harsh punishments to deter people from using or selling drugs.   

From mass killings in the Philippines and the application of the death penalty for drug offences in Malaysia, to mass incarceration in the USA and torture in Mexico, the “war on drugs” has been a driver of widespread human rights abuses. 

There is growing evidence from every region in the world that the “war on drugs” fails to decrease the use and availability of drugs. Instead, it undermines the rights of millions of people, exacerbates the harms of using drugs, and intensifies the violence associated with illicit markets.  

In reality, the war on drugshas been a war on people.  

It disproportionately affects the poorest and most marginalized communities, who carry the burden of this failed strategy. It traps entire communities in cycles of incarceration, violence and poverty.  

a group of people are holding signs in front of a government building. The main sign in view says "Alto a la guerra contra las drogas'
Advocates and community organizations in New York City, USA held a press conference, challenging the Mayor to end racially biased marijuana arrests completely.
Drug suspects are rounded up during an anti-illegal drugs operation. A group are sitting on the ground with their hands over the head and their heads facing towards the ground.
Drug suspects are rounded up during an anti-illegal drugs operation at an informal settlers community at the Manila Islamic Center in Manila, Philippines.

Case Study: Mass killings in the Philippines

In June 2016, then-President Rodrigo Duterte launched a brutal campaign against drugs in the Philippines. Since then, thousands of people, the vast majority from poor and marginalized communities, were killed over suspected links to the drug trade. 

The government acknowledged at least 6,200 killings at the hands of police or other people with links to the police. Human rights groups report that the real figure could be as high as 30,000 people killed by anti-drug operations. There remains no genuine accountability for these human rights violations nor justice for families of victims. 

The “war on drugs” in the Philippines has been characterized by widespread and systematic extrajudicial executions and other human rights violations that amount to crimes against humanity. In fact, the International Criminal Court is currently conducting an investigation into these crimes. 

The killings continue under the new Marcos administration, with 342 drug-related killings reported during his first year in office.

Amnesty International also documented appalling human rights abuses in the context of the so-called “war on drugs” in many other countries, including in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Mexico, Thailand, and USA

Arbitrary detention and mass incarceration

Approximately 20% of the global prison population is detained for a drug-related offence.  

Latin America has seen a particularly sharp growth in prison populations in the last decades, where the population detained for drug-related offences has grown at a faster pace than the overall prison population.  

Globally, women are imprisoned for drug-related offences more than for any other crime and face harsher obstacles to access non-custodial sanctions and other alternatives to detention than men. 

The US imprisons more people than any other country. One in five people in US prisons is serving time for a non-violent drug offence. According to an investigation conducted by HRW and ACLU, someone is arrested in the US every 25 seconds for possessing drugs for personal use.  

Thousands of other people who use or are suspected of using drugs have been arbitrarily detained and forcibly subjected to mandatory treatment, often without their consent. These centres have been infamous for their deplorable conditions and reports of torture and other ill-treatment.  

An Amnesty International investigation revealed the punitive and abusive nature of drug-detention centres in Cambodia, where medical facilities and properly trained staff is utterly lacking. Rather than receiving evidence-based treatment, people are detained against their will and face systematic abuse. 

A woman holds her child as she faces a line of police officers. There is a look of despair and exhaustion on her face.
Police officers stand as residents look at them during an “Oplan Tokhang” or house-to-house campaign on illegal drugs at an informal settlers community in Manila, Philippines.
an overcrowded room in a prison in the Philippines. Apart from a few who sit on top bunk beds, people have nowhere to sit but on the floor. Some of them are wearing make-shift masks out of towels and shirts to protect them from covid-19.
President Duterte’s war on drugs has a huge impact on society. Many so called drug users and dealers are locked up behind bars, whether guilty or not. Others are just killed.

The use of the death penalty for drug-related offences is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of the punitive approach favoured by many countries. Those sentenced to death for drug-related offences are mostly at the low-end of the drug chain, and often from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. 

Under international law, states that have not yet abolished the death penalty must limit its use to the “most serious crimes”, meaning intentional killing. Using the death penalty for drug-related offences is a clear violation of international law. 

Yet, drug-related offences can still be punished by death in more than 30 countries. Amnesty has continued to document people executed for drug-related charges in a handful of countries, namely China, Iran,  Saudi Arabia and Singapore.  Vietnam was likely to have carried out such executions as well, although it is difficult to say for sure. 

a group of people hold up candles at a vigil.
Activists attend a candlelight vigil against the impending execution of Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, sentenced to death for trafficking heroin into Singapore, outside the Singaporean embassy in Kuala Lumpur on November 8, 2021.

Punitive drug policies, torture and other ill-treatment

The militarization of the “war on drugs” and the highly punitive nature of drug policies around the world has led to a direct increase in cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.  

Sexual violence used as a form of torture has become a regular part of interrogations, particularly in the context of drug-related operations. 

Some countries also have in place punishments for drug-related offences that amount to torture and other ill-treatment. In Singapore, for example, drug laws allow for the penalty of life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane as the only alternative punishment to a death sentence for people convicted of drug trafficking. 

a group of people stand at a crime scene in the dark. Someone is shining a bright light on the ground.
In South Africa, members of a community patrol beat and force a man who was found with drugs and stolen goods to squat.
A woman is in the back of a police van. She is facing away from the camera and has her hands in handcuffs.
A woman arrested in northern Mexico.

Case Study: Women in Mexico

In Mexico, drug cartels often recruit women and girls from marginalized backgrounds to carry out dangerous tasks as they are considered expendable if arrested. As a result, young, poorly educated and low-paid women and girls are at particular risk of suffering abuses at the hands of criminal groups.

Women are also at risk of being picked up by the police or the military since they are often seen as the weakest link in the trafficking chain and an easy target for arrest.

Authorities often attempt to boost figures to show they are tackling organized crime, which leads to group arrests and accusations without evidence. This specifically affects women, who are often unfoundedly accused of being girlfriends, and thus accomplices of people involved in organized crime.

An Amnesty International investigation revealed routine sexual abuse of women by security forces who want to secure “confessions”. This allows them to boost figures in an attempt to show they are tackling organized crime, without targeting those at the top of the drug chain.  

The harm of punitive drug policies on young people

States have a particular obligation to protect children and adolescents from the risks and harms of drugs, including those stemming from the use of drugs by children or their parents as well as from policing and other law enforcement efforts. 

While data relating to the use of drugs by children and young people is poor in many countries, evidence suggests that punitive responses to drugs do not deter children from using drugs nor significantly restrict their access to them. Instead, punitive drug policies have produced additional and particular harms to children, including physical and mental health consequences. 

two young boys rush indoors as an armed officer walks down their road carrying a large rifle.
Children living in the Favela de Mare in Rio De Janeiro live in the crossfire of Brazil’s crackdown on drug use.
A woman is looking down at a book with photos of her son Emil. In the photos he is smiling and striking poses.
Yulia Ostrovko, with portraits of her son Emil, who was given an eight-year prison sentence for minor drug offences, Minsk, Belarus.

Case Study: Children and young people lured to distribute drugs in Belarus

The UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus estimates that hundreds of children and young people in Belarus are serving lengthy sentences for minor, non-violent drug-related offences. 

All too often, children and young people in Belarus fall victim to deceptive practices by anonymous individuals who sell drugs online via couriers. Often those who apply for these courier jobs don’t know what it entails or what they are delivering. Nonetheless, those who are caught are prosecuted as part of a “group” or an “organized group”, which are crimes punishable by a minimum of six or ten years respectively. 

Children that are caught by the police have reported being coerced into admitting their guilt and often face multiple human rights violations while in detention. 

Drug laws and discrimination

Drug laws are often enforced in a discriminatory way against marginalized groups, including racial and ethnic minorities and the poorest sectors of society.

Racism is deeply embedded in drug policies in many countries.

 The ACLU found in 2020 that Black people across the US are over three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people, despite roughly equal rates of use. In the UK, Black people are stopped and searched for drugs at almost nine times the rate of white people. In Brazil, more than 84% of all victims of killings by the police during anti-drug operations were Black. 

Indigenous young people in Australia were 26 times more likely to be in detention than non-indigenous young people, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are more likely to be convicted of a drug-related offence. In Bangladesh, police drug raids which often lead to extrajudicial executions frequently target low-income neighbourhoods.  

Women have also been disproportionately affected by drug laws, facing increased risks as their participation in the drug trade is on the rise worldwide – especially among women who lack education and economic opportunities. 

Women who use drugs are also at particular risk of criminalization, especially if they become pregnant. Some US states have laws that are used to arrest and prosecute pregnant women who use drugs based on a belief that they are harming their foetus. Fear of these laws deters pregnant people from accessing healthcare and drug treatment.  

a black woman wearing a facemask holds a clenched fist in the air. She is surrounded by many other anti-racism protesters.
A woman raises a clenched fist during a protest against racism and police violence amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, after a massive police operation against drug traffickers in Jacarezinho favela that left 25 people dead.

Alternatives to the prohibition and criminalization of drugs

Governments and civil society organizations are designing new models for regulating and decriminalizing drugs in many places around the world. 

While some alternatives to current prohibitionist policies have yet to be tested, the evidence available so far shows that decriminalizing the use, possession and cultivation of drugs for personal use, if combined with an expansion of health and social services, does not lead to higher rates of use. Instead, countries where drugs have been decriminalized have seen a beneficial impact on public health, public security and human rights. 

A few other places are moving away from prohibition and towards better regulation of drugs within legal markets, based on the premise that bringing illicit markets under the control of the government can better protect public health and human rights.  

What’s the difference between decriminalization and regulation?

Decriminalisation means removing laws that make it a criminal offence, for example around the use or possession of drugs. Decriminalization does not mean that drugs are legal; rather, it means that people who are caught with them will not get a criminal record or face jail time.  

On the other hand, regulation means adopting a range of legislative and regulatory frameworks to allow drugs to be legally available, but with a level of state control that differs according to the health risks of each substance. 
Regulation does not mean to allow for the unrestricted access for all people to all drugs. Instead, it sets out rules to allow for the adequate control of specific substances and provide the legal channels for those permitted to access them. This is similar to the way governments regulate alcohol and tobacco.  

one of the staff members at Pause Diabolo hands out medication and sterile equipment as part of the centers harm reduction programme.
Pause Diabolo, a risk reduction center for drug users, in Lyon, France. Pause Diabolo sees drug users as part of a national French policy to reduce health hazards. It involves making risk reduction equipment available, helping with access to care, hygiene help, social mediation and helping gain access to benefits as well as social and professional reintegration.
two patients stand at window where they can pick up medicine to treat drug addiction. One of them is holding a puppy and the other is drinking medicine from a white plastic cup.
Patient Rita Pestana holds her puppy while her husband takes his daily dose of 85 milligrams of methadone. The daily methadone program is part of Portugal’s radical move to decriminalize drug use and emphasis treating drug addiction.

Case Study: Decriminalization of drugs in Portugal

In Portugal, the use and possession of all drugs has been decriminalized since 2001. Drugs are still not legally available, but the national strategy focuses on increasing access to drug treatment rather than criminalizing drugs.

Instead, people might be sent to a committee made up of legal, health and social work professionals tasked with determining whether there is a problematic use of drugs or if some underlying social or health problem needs to be addressed. They offer services to those in need instead of throwing them in jail.  

Portugal’s drug policies have had a beneficial impact on public health and human rights. Levels of drug have decreased since 2001, especially for heroin-use. And even with new synthetic drugs and consumption habits growing, they remain below the European average.

There has also been a dramatic decrease in new HIV diagnoses among people who inject drugs.  

The implementation of Portugal’s decriminalization strategy is not perfect, there are still cases where people have been arrested for consuming drugs. However, the country’s intentional step away from harmful punitive policies demonstrates how a more humanizing approach can save and improve lives. 

What is Amnesty doing to address drug policy reform?

Amnesty International is calling for states to shift away from policies based on prohibition and criminalization, in favour of evidence-based alternatives that protect public health and the human rights of people who use drugs and other affected communities.  

This should include decriminalizing the use, possession, cultivation and purchase of all drugs for personal use, and the effective regulation of drugs to provide legal and safe channels for those permitted to access them.  Such policies must be accompanied by an expansion of health and other social services to address drug-related problems as well as other measures to address the underlying socio-economic causes that increase the risks of using drugs and that lead people to engage in the illicit drug trade.

Drugs can certainly pose some risks to individuals and societies, and therefore states have an obligation to adopt adequate measures to protect people from the harmful effects of drugs. But it is precisely because of these risks that governments need to take control and regulate how these substances are produced, sold and used. 

Among other things, Amnesty is calling for governments to: 

  • Move away from punishing and stigmatizing people who use drugs and instead adopt laws and policies focused on protecting health and human rights to minimize risks and stop the violence associated with illicit markets. 
  • Decriminalize the use, possession cultivation, and purchase of all drugs for personal use. Decriminalization policies must be accompanied by an expansion of health and other social services to address the risks related to drug use. 
  • Expand evidence-based prevention, harm reduction and treatment programmes and address the root causes that may increase the risks of using drugs or that lead people to become involved in the drug trade, including ill-health, denial of education, unemployment, lack of housing, poverty and discrimination.  
  • Regain control and reduce violence by moving towards the effective regulation of drugs, based on a scientific and evidence-based assessment of the risks and harms of each drug, to effectively control substances and provide legal channels for those permitted to access them.
  • Put in place measures that tackle social inequalities and promote social justice, including a wide set of gender-sensitive and holistic socio-economic protection measures tackling the different stages of the drug trade, from cultivation and production to distribution and use. 
Illustration showing a collage of images of an indigenous person, farmers, someone in handcuffs, a megaphone, a hand holding a candle, drugs, a gun and money, a first aid kit and a police hat.
An artist’s illustration of the impacts of punitive drug policies depicting an Indigenous woman making traditional use of tobacco, a person arrested by the police, militarized drug enforcement and activists calling for the end of the “war on drugs”

Find out more about our drug reform policy

For more information about Amnesty’s approach to campaigning for drug policy reform, check out our paper on Time for change: Advancing new drug policies that uphold human rights.