WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Alex Bare/WOLA

5 May 2023 | Commentary

Drug Policy and Human Rights: Four Takeaways from the Cities Summit of the Americas

On April 28, 2023, the Washington Office on Latin America teamed with the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy at the University of Essex (United Kingdom) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to host a panel on drug policy and human rights at the Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver, Colorado. The first of its kind, the Cities Summit brought together municipal government officials and civil society organizations from 34 countries to discuss regional challenges at the local level. 

Our panel featured civil society leaders and former mayors from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States, as well as officials from the Biden administration and the United Nations. Here are four takeaways from the panelists’ powerful calls for creating just and effective drug policies. 

1. ‘War on Drugs’ Rhetoric Warps Our Words. We organized our panel at the Summit to show why and how human rights must be at the center of drug policy, highlighting the value for local leaders of the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy. We deliberately framed our session as a discussion of policies on drugs, not against drugs, mindful of the terrible toll in bloodshed and lives destroyed by decades of drug prohibition and criminalization. But the drug war has become deeply entrenched in societies’ languages and habits of thought. So much so that machine learning translation tools veer toward drug war language.

Our panel’s original subtitle, “Local Governance for Sustainable Action on Drugs,” was intentionally neutral. However, the translation tool used for the Summit’s website produced Spanish and Portuguese versions that were infused with the language of the drug war, utilizing the words contra—i.e., sustainable action against drugs. The software apparently drew upon the prevalent political discourse: political leaders often speak of campaigns against drugs, and even strategies to entirely eradicate drugs—the impossible goal of a so-called “drug-free world.” Too seldom are drugs discussed in a neutral light that is open to nuances and alternative paths forward. 

Ultimately, we had to change our panel title to coax the language of the translation software to produce an accurate translation: “Human Rights Close to Home: Local Governance for Sustainable Action Regarding Drugs.”

2. Stigma Kills: Criminalizing drugs stigmatizes people who use drugs and pushes policy towards an emphasis on punishment. Policymakers should recognize that setting the bar at eliminating drugs is a recipe for failure and fosters cruelty toward our fellow citizens. Even where criminalization does not result in prison sentences, the damage is severe, distancing people from needed health services and increasing the risk of overdose and the spread of transmissible disease

For Ernesto Cortés, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of People Who Use Drugs, criminalization amounts to a policy of death. “Instead of protecting us and guaranteeing our human rights, it’s a policy that seeks to eliminate us.” Incarceration dramatically escalates the intensity and scope of harm to individuals, families, and entire communities. Railda Silva, founder of Brazil’s Association of Family and Friends of Incarcerated People, underscored the routine brutality faced by people held behind bars, whom her organization calls “survivors of incarceration.”

3. Decriminalize Now: One of the most powerful reforms policymakers can enact to undercut stigma is to end the criminalization of people who use drugs. The 2018 UN System Common Position promoted “alternatives to conviction and punishment in appropriate cases, including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use.” Similarly, in 2021, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recommended that governments “decriminalize the use, possession, acquisition or cultivation of drugs for personal use, including the possession of associated paraphernalia.” 

Panelist Cat Brooks, director of Justice Teams Network in Oakland, California and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Network, made it crystal clear: “Decriminalize now. Right now, right this very second.” There is no evidence that criminalization discourages the production, sale, and use of drugs, but the damage to individuals, families, and communities is all too clear.

Svante Myrick, former mayor of Ithaca, New York, recognized early in his tenure that punishing people who use drugs was both cruel and counterproductive. Indeed this punitive emphasis has “led us, the United States, to incarcerate more people than anywhere else in the world—a disproportionate number of them Black and Brown.” 

4. Reduce Harms. Save Lives: President Biden’s administration is the first U.S. government to embrace harm reduction—the idea that people who use drugs should be offered tools and services that prioritize their well-being and reduce the risks of the drugs they use. But this long overdue federal government support for harm reduction is still incipient and nowhere near the scale required to save lives at risk amidst increasingly toxic U.S. drug markets. 

Mario Moreno, chief of staff at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, pointed out the Biden administration’s unprecedented support for harm reduction services, but also underscored that “our work to reduce overdoses is only effective if the federal government and communities are working together in concert.”


UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris noted that instead of “furthering the stigma associated with the criminalization of drug use, drug policies in cities as well as the central level need to be focused on reducing harm among people who use drugs and be based on evidence.”

Drug prohibition and the “war on drugs” continue to wreak havoc on families and communities throughout the Americas. But policymakers and civil society now have a roadmap to implementing human rights-based drug policy in the form of the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy