Why Current Drug Policies Are Failing The Children and Young People We Seek to Protect

Damon Barrett
Nov 20, 2015 · 5 min read
UN Photo/Cia Pak

Today is Universal Children’s Day. It marks the day when the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child (1959) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) were adopted. The Convention was a landmark document that took ten years to draft and that has now been ratified by 196 states; every country on the planet except the US.

This is on my mind as I prepare to speak on human rights at the biennial International Drug Policy Reform Conference, taking place in Washington DC, an important convening of civil society actors in advance of next year’s UN General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem next April. It is a gathering of some 1,400 people that seek an end to the global war on drugs — a war that has been waged for decades in the name of protecting children.

We all agree that we have to protect children and young people from the harmful effects of drug use and from exploitation by the drugs trade. This is so self-evident it hardly needs saying, but it is nonetheless reiterated time and again as if, without more, it is justification for staying the course.

But let’s look at this course we are on.

There are over 10 million people in penal institutions around the world. The numbers of people in prison and pre-trial custody for non-violent drug offences globally are not known, but regional and national statistics seem to indicate it could potentially be into the millions. Among them are young people, but also parents. In fact, one in four women (28%) in prison in Europe and Central Asia are incarcerated for non-violent drug offences. Many of these women are the primary caregivers for their families, highlighting the acute and chronic problems for children associated with the over-use of prison as a response to drug offences.

Added to these millions are the tens of millions of families who are saddled with criminal records, so casually handed down for petty drugs offences committed by a parent or child. These punitive decisions cause long-term damage to individuals and families, limiting their opportunities and stifling their chances to live fulfilling lives.

Incarceration and criminal records aren’t the only issues. There are many more problems associated with the current drug control policies and their effects on families and children.

Four fifths of the world population, representing billions of people in the developing world have no or inadequate access to the most basic of medicines, such as morphine, to control pain.

We are set to miss global HIV targets by decades because money and other resources are flushed down the sinkhole of ineffective enforcement rather than being invested in evidence-based harm reduction services.

Hundreds of thousands are still being arbitrarily detained because they are drug dependent or suspected of being drug dependent. Among them are, again, children and parents.

There are many hundreds of thousands of people displaced due to crop eradication campaigns and drug related violence. Children have lost parents or been themselves killed in drug related violence in Mexico and elsewhere.

All of this in the name of stopping people using drugs.

The goal set by governments at the UN is for the elimination or significant reduction in demand for drugs by 2019, but today there are 40 million more people using illicit drugs than in 2006.

Within this failure are the children and young people we seek to protect.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was also a landmark because it was the first UN human rights treaty to refer to drugs. It requires that states adopt ‘appropriate measures’ to protect children from drugs and involvement in the drug trade. So what is ‘appropriate’ from a child rights perspective? Do the policies and practices leading to the above outcomes qualify?

One thing to do to answer this question is to speak to children and young people themselves. In fact, this was done decades ago, at a key moment in the war on drugs.

In 1971 the White House hosted its final conference on children, which had been running every decade since 1909. This time there were two conferences, one on children and one on youth. The latter addressed young people aged 15–25 and was run by and for them. Their report called for wide policy reforms including the legalisation of marijuana, the decriminalisation of all other drugs, the release of people in prison for minor drug offences and the roll out of methadone for treating those with opiate dependence.

The same year the Nixon administration launched its war on drugs, disagreeing with what young people had to say. That year the first UN General Assembly resolution espousing the threat to children emerged.

In April next year the UN will convene the special session on drugs, the first time this topic has been discussed at this type of session in nearly 20 years. The theme is ‘a better world for tomorrow’s youth’. If we take the imperative to protect children from drugs seriously, and their rights seriously, then this summit should be about asking the right questions. So let’s use this rare event to initiate a study on the impacts of drug policies on children and young people, using the Convention on the Rights of the Child as our baseline to measure drug policies against what matters in children’s lives, instead of again using the threat to children posed by drugs to avoid important discussions of where our drug policies are harming them. Such a study is not unprecedented: an UNGASS on children in 2002 resulted in the groundbreaking Global Violence Study, which continues to be influential.

In 1924 the League of Nations adopted the first declaration on the rights of the child, stating that mankind owes to children the best it has to give. I see no reason why that principle should have changed. The question when it comes to the war on drugs is simply this: Is this the best we have to give?

Damon Barrett

Written by

Director, International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy. PhD candidate, Stockholm University. Proud immigrant.