November 27, 2018

Drug policy is a human rights issue


The dialogue about drug policy in Australia is changing.

Fresh discussion about life-saving policies like establishing supervised injecting facilities, distributing naloxone, and trialling drug checking programs are shifting the terms of debate to a more compassionate, evidence-based approach.

These life-saving programs could even be discussed in terms of falling within Australia’s obligations as a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When Australia signed the declaration, we agreed as a nation that “everyone has the right to life” and “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including… housing and medical care and necessary social services”.1 We agreed on “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as the critical foundation for a free, just, and peaceful world.1

Australia should be proud of the successful history of the needle and syringe programs established in the 1980s,2 and of the establishment of the country’s second official supervised injecting centre in Victoria in 2018.

Providing services that save the lives of people who use drugs is taking practical action on the inalienable human right to life. It respects in practice, not just sentiment, the belief that people who use drugs are entitled to all the same rights to life, to health care, and to social services as people who don’t.

When people who use drugs describe the stigma they experience, many talk about their dignity being taken away and the lack of respect for the inherent value of their lives.3 Their experiences highlight the need for more work to be done to address the stigma attached to people who use drugs, and to educate our communities about the complex nature of drug use and dependency.

We do our society a disservice if we treat its vulnerable members as any less than equals, deserving of the same rights and respect as we expect for ourselves.

The good news is that the world is changing. There are growing numbers of international voices saying that the punitive “war on drugs” has failed; that we cannot “arrest our way out of the problem”; and that the roots of drug dependency are primarily trauma, isolation, disadvantage and suffering. There is growing understanding of the powerful role that negative childhood experiences play in the likelihood that a person will later struggle with drug dependency.4

By bringing human rights into our drug policy dialogue, we can continue to expand life-saving policies and programs that are based in compassion and respect for the value of every human life – including the lives of people who use drugs.

  1. United Nations General Assembly. 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  2. Dolan, K., MacDonald, M., Silins, E., and Topp, L. 2005. Needle and syringe programs: A review of the evidence. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.
  3. Curtin University. 2016. ‘Lives of Substance - Personal stories of alcohol or other drug addiction, dependence or habit presented in people’s own words.’
  4. Hughes, K., Bellis, M.A., Hardcastle, K.A., Sethi, D., Butchart, A., Mikton, C., Jones, L. and Dunne, M.P. 2017. The effect of multiple adverse childhood experiences on health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Public Health, 2(8), pp.e356-e366.

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