Drug laws established to protect youth too often present the greatest danger to young people, who suffer imprisonment, harassment and marginalization. The emerging discourse on drug policy reform needs to incorporate the experiences of young people who use drugs – because, for too long, the rhetoric has not reflected their reality.
In the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa, Youth RISE continues to see too many young people who use drugs stigmatized and isolated. They experience severe human rights abuses, a lack of health services and appropriate treatment, in addition to being barred from education and employment.
In Nigeria, young people who use drugs are increasingly at risk of what appears to be a growing HIV epidemic among young users. This is driven by high-risk drug using behavior, a consequence of drug polices based on criminalization and subsequent persecution and social stigma. Research by Youth RISE our members in Nepal has shown the major barriers young people experience in accessing drug and HIV prevention services. Unjust harassment and persecution by police officials is also commonly experienced in Lebanon. Here, Youth RISE members have facilitated workshops at a women's prison, where treatment for these young women’s dependencies is non-existent and sexual abuse is common. Similar themes have been found in Kyrgyzstan where a partner organization of Youth RISE interviewed 30 young women who use drugs. These women reported widespread sexual abuse by law enforcement officials and a lack of access to appropriate health services.
Punitive policies are often justified as necessary for the protection of young people. However, the logic that these policies deter young people from using drugs is clearly false and is not supported by academic evidence or by what we see on the ground. It is well documented that harsh penalties for drug offences compromise public health and increase the risk of drug related harms including HIV transmission by driving drug use underground into risky environments.
However, for the majority of young people who use illegal substances (many for only brief periods in their lives), the biggest hindrance to them fulfilling their potential is the impact of drug convictions, cautions and criminal records. In countries around the world, criminal charges for drug offences based on the possession of small amounts of substances result in young people being denied a proper education through, for example, school expulsion or denial of financial aid. The barriers they experience to education continue into their adult years where the same obstacles to gaining meaningful and long term employment exist.
We hope by raising the voices of young people, we can advance change in how drug issues are addressed, especially among the younger generation who will be integral to future policy formulation. Young people remain a population at risk, and they need to be given the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Humanism, pragmatism and the protection of the health and development of our youth must guide drug policy formulation. This requires support, not punishment.
This campaign is calling for:
- National governments to remove criminal sanctions for possessing drugs for personal use. Drugs must be prioritized as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement one, prioritizing the health, human rights and life chances of young people who use drugs.
- International institutions to support countries to move towards decriminalization and assist them in adopting public health based approaches for addressing young people who use drugs.
- Civil society organizations and NGO’s who support human rights and youth development to support the call for the decriminalization of young people who use drugs.
- Young people to be active in making their voices heard in this campaign and participate in drug policy reform.