Skip to content

The Drug Epidemic All Over the World: Authoritative, International Calls for Decriminalization


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Personal)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/11/05

I want to talk about a problem today. The problem reaching to all corners of the globe, in nations, in communities, maybe, even, in your own family. It is an unfortunate fact of the modern world. That’s the reality of illicit substances or drugs, and their various abuses, overuses, and at-times associated overdoses.

Our current era of technological marvels, scientific wonders shedding new views on the natural world and our relationship with the cosmos, comes with the concomitant problem of easier illicit production, distribution, and consumption of potentially harmful substances or drugs (WHO, 2018a; WHO, 2018b).

In particular, and on even one metric of opioid overdoses, there are 70,000 to 100,000 individuals dying from opioid overdoses each year, which is the main cause of the estimate 99,000 to 253,000 deaths from to illicit drug use in 2010 (UNODC/WHO, 2013). 8,440 overdose deaths happened with the EU28 in 2015 (European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Addiction, 2017). Indeed, there were 1.3 million high-risk opioid users in Europe alone (Ibid.).

In America, there were about two-thirds of the 64,000 deaths associated with opioids or synthetic opioids (Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2018). These types — and there are others — of substance have the potential to be addictive and harmful, in the short or the long term. It is both sad, moving, and a clarion call for our need to make the world safer for the next generations. What can we do?

We can first of all pay attention to the experts of the world. Those taking significant portions of their lives to commit themselves to the study of important topic areas in medicine, in biological sciences, in pharmaceutical sciences, demography, anthropology, human psychological sciences, and so on.

Many girls and women are impacted by drug addiction and overdoses, even deaths. They even have fathers, uncles, brothers, grandfathers, and sons and grandsons who have died from drug overdoses. However, the long-term and overwhelming evidence is men use more illicit substances and deal with more of the consequences in personal life (NIH, 2018a; NIH, 2018b).

That means the impact on men and boys creates impacts in the lives of women and girls. Men and boys they love. Women and girls who are loved. When looking at the important organizations on the international stage, we can look into those who have made the warnings and calls to action about drug abuse and use, e.g., the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UN General Assembly Session on the Approach to the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) in its 2016 unanimous conclusion, through drug policy and the Sustainable Development Goals, and others (UNODC, 2018; Yakupitiyage, 2017; UNODC, 2015; Sustainable Development Goals, n.d.).

One of the main global organizations for the health and wellness of the public is the World Health Organization. The main collective entity representing the world’s population, and which produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 70 years ago, is the United Nations. Both the World Health Organization and the United Nations issued a joint statement calling for the decriminalization of all drugs (WHO, 2017).

Former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres called for the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal and instituted the programs while the prime minister there. Now, Guterres, following Ban Ki-Moon, is the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He is also calling for decriminalization from this station as well (Secretariat to the Governing Bodies UNODC, 2018).

Indeed, even the late Kofi Annan, he made a call for the decriminalization of drugs around the world for the better wellbeing of the world’s peoples (Pablo, 2017). Same with the Global Commission on Drug Policy comprised of 12 powerful former heads of state (2016). Even in the US, the public is mostly in favour of the decriminalization of cannabis or marijuana, which would comprise harm reduction methodologies (Geiger, 2018).

In select nations, there is a continuous call for decriminalization and then the eventual enactment of the policies and initiatives of decriminalization of drugs in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and Portugal, and other countries (Travis, 2014).

Prominent among them is the success of Guterres. It is an affirming legacy in the process of decriminalization and the interests and wellbeing of the public. The major organizations in the global order see the wisdom in decriminalization. Many nations are seeing eye-to-eye with them.

Then in Canada, two of the three major federal or national political parties have called for the decriminalization of drugs too. The main health officials of some of the most populated city centres in Canada — Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto — have called for decriminalization as well (Dickson, 2018). There is this continual groundswell internationally, multi-nationally, and nationally, especially close to home nationally with Canadian society.

The reason is stark, and clear. Canadian citizens are dying because of overdoses. The punishment-oriented or punitive approach is the methodology for dealing with drugs most visible in countries like the United States, where the purpose is to punish. They imprison and fine drug users or holders to make an example of them and others.

As far as the evidence is concerned, it tends to increase drug use and overdoses. It does not decrease them. That is why the experts are not calling for more or even continued criminalization of drug users. It impacts the poor and minorities the most (Fellner, 2009). To further the criminalization of drugs, it would harm people in penurious circumstances and with minority ethnic backgrounds more than the richer and dominant ethnic groups in a country.

But what is the alternative? Why are there calls for decriminalization at all levels of the world system?

The alternative is harm reduction (Harm Reduction International, 2018). Decriminalization is part of the process of implementing harm reduction philosophy. But what is harm reduction outside of the calls around the world for decriminalization? It is, in fact, a wide range of policies, programs, and practices devoted to the reduction of harms associated with drug use.

It is an acceptance of drug use in the society with an emphasis on ways in which to reduce the harms to the general public, especially in the sectors of the population without the want or the will to halt personal substance use. When HIV was becoming more prominent and spreading throughout some of the subpopulations in some countries of the world, harm reduction began its early development processes.

Some of the first beneficiaries were drug users who inject the substance into them with a needle. In Canadian society, we see the work of safe needle exchange sites to reduce the transmission of HIV and infectious diseases. Without a clean needle, the diseases can spread from user to user through contaminated needles. It sounds simple. But it is akin to the first people who found out about washing hands prior to surgery as a good idea to prevent infection from the surgery.

The harm reduction philosophy means more then these too. It is akin to reproductive health services for women. Where women deserve and reserve the right to reproductive health services, including abortion, women should have safe and equitable access to these services, as noted by Human Rights Watch. It is stipulated in a number of human rights documents. Similarly, the point of harm reduction is not forcing drugs on the citizenry but providing safe and equitable access to the least among us — the forgotten, bruised by life, and often coping with substance abuse.

They deserve our care, compassion, and concern as fellow global citizens and travellers in this journey called life. But these are lofty notions and ideals. How do we best work in the pragmatic and implement programs for the needs of the least among us? Some of the solutions already mentioned and proposed by major organizations of the world and health authorities representing nations in the world or of major cities in, for example, Canada.

Others include the safe needle exchange programs. Still others, they include the work to incorporate access to safe injection sites for a reliable and safe place for drug users. Also, the provision of a drug called naloxone through kits (Miles, n.d.). These can stop overdoses in their tracks. The reason is they block the opioid receptors of the body, so the fentanyl-laced opioid substances do not kill them.

Thousands of people are dying every year in the one of the highest-ranked on measures of wellbeing nations in the world, Canada. It is due to this opioid epidemic spreading across the nation, where naloxone kits can prevent overdoses enough to provide time for proper medical care in the uncommon cases of overdoses in drug users who can be abusers.

The safe needle exchange programs, the safe injection sites, the naloxone kits, and the decriminalization all help reduce the deaths and health problems to the public. These harm reduction measures improve the overall health the society, which would, otherwise, be impacted by the deaths of individual drug overdoses. Remember the drug fentanyl mentioned before.

That is a major culprit here. It should not be laced with opioids and other drugs. However, the problem is the illicit or criminal status of the drugs. The criminalization is the problem, which directly relates to the illicit status and illegal-unregulated production of the drugs. When done this way, the opioids are accidentally, and sometimes intentionally, laced with fentanyl, which is a deadly drug. Decriminalization reduces the harms there. Many of my fellow Canadians and global citizens would not heartbreakingly be dead as a result, too.

Take, for example, the case of Guterres with Portugal. What was the actual impact of the harm reduction measures?

The situation is in stark contrast to the punitive measures. There are no arrests for drug possession. More people have begun to receive treatment. As a direct result, the total number of people having addiction problems, HIV/AIDS, and drug overdoses have plummeted in Portugal (Vastag, 2009). What if this happened in Canada? What about the rest of the world, as per the calls for harm reduction to be implemented through decriminalization?

These harm reduction measures have been nationally empirically proven to be effective to greatly improve the public’s health and safety. Harm reduction is an evidence-based approach to combatting the drug problems of the world and has been recognized around the world by the health experts to improve the lives of the general public. It is all the more urgent based on the potential to reduce harms to individuals, families, and communities, to implement the methodologies shown to work almost immediately — within a couple years or less.

Given the demographics of who is imprisoned or fined, the public health benefits would accrue to the most vulnerable populations of most societies, which are the minority subpopulations and the lower classes/the poor. Those public health benefits would make their lives healthier, easier, longer, and less mixed up — unduly — with the law.

These populations are the most deserving of better consideration and equal opportunity within the society, whether considering deliberate cultural genocide and attempted extermination of the Indigenous population in North America or the slavery of the African-American population in the US. They continue to suffer under the consequences of a long history of repression and abuse. Indigenous men and women in Canada only got the right to vote in 1960. African-Americans in America saw only further equality with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The War on Drugs, in America, or the criminalization of crimes without victims mostly affect these more vulnerable populations.

With the evidence before us, and with the stark contrast between the outcomes of the punitive approach and the harm reduction approach to the drug issue around the world, and with the calls from all the relevant experts internationally and nationally, one major step to tackle the problem of drugs will be the recognition of harm reduction as the way to solve this problem.

The next steps will be education of the global public about the empirical evidence with the examples before us, with Portugal and others as positive successes. Following this, we should work towards a national and international collective set of efforts to solve the issue of drug abuse and overdoses. Human beings have used drugs for thousands of years. They have abused them for as long as they have been around. However, we have the means, through minimal expenses and compassion, to reduce the harms to those all over the world impacted by addiction, drug abuse, and overdoses.

This is not a trivial thing either. Speaking as a high-level representative of the UN community, the harm reduction approach is based on a firm, strong commitment to the health of the general public, as explained before, and human rights. Who can help work for the public health and human rights?

Our communities, frontline works, policymakers, politicians, and researchers to name a few. Then there are those heading out into the world as the next generation of educated workers and leaders. You are the investment of the future of the rest of the world. You can be the positive force for good that the world so desperately needs, as we have issues in climate change, nuclear proliferation, food shortages, natural disasters, and so on. The problems of the drug epidemics are one of those grand challenges recognized by the most influential organizations and people in the world as a problem.

The best part of these solutions is that they are typically low-cost, low-risk, and high-payoff. They respect the individual to make their own informed choices about drugs. But they provide the health services to the public. And if someone has a moral objection to them, they do not have to use them. But for those who do need them, they have them available for use. It respects all involved parties, produce real positive outcomes for the population, and works to create a more stable world for all.

Become a part of that future, we need you.


Dickson, J. (2018, July 30). Despite calls, Ottawa won’t decriminalize drugs apart from cannabis. Retrieved from

European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Addiction. (2017, June 6). PERSPECTIVES ON DRUGS Preventing overdose deaths in Europe. Retrieved from

Fellner, J. (2009, June 19). Race, Drugs, and Law Enforcement in the United States. Retrieved from

Harm Reduction International. (2018). What is Harm Reduction?. Retrieved from

Geiger, A. (2018, January 5). About six-in-ten Americans support marijuana legalization. Retrieved from

Global Commission on Drug Policy. (2016). Advancing Drug Policy Reform: A New Approach to Decriminalization. Retrieved from

Global Commission on Drug Policy. (2018). The Opioid Crisis in North America. Retrieved from

Miles, T. (n.d.). World Health Organization Recommends Naloxone to Prevent 20,000 Overdose Deaths in U.S.. Retrieved from

NIH. (2018a, July). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use. Retrieved from

NIH. (2018b, August). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use. Retrieved from Sustainable Development Goals. (n.d.). 3 Good Health and Well-Being. Retrieved from

Pablo, D. (2017, October 3). Ex-UN Chief Kofi Annan Calls for Cannabis Legalization. Retrieved from

Secretariat to the Governing Bodies UNODC. (2018). 61st session of CND, video message by Mr. António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations. Retrieved from

Travis, A. (2014, October 30). Eleven countries studied, one inescapable conclusion — the drug laws don’t work. Retrieved from

UNODC. (2015, November). Drug Policy and the Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from

UNODC/WHO. (2013). Opioid overdose: preventing and reducing opioid overdose mortality. Retrieved from

UNODC. (2018, June 26). World Drug Report 2018: opioid crisis, prescription drug abuse expands; cocaine and opium hit record highs. Retrieved from–prescription-drug-abuse-expands-cocaine-and-opium-hit-record-highs.html.

Vastag, B. (2009, April 7). 5 Years After: Portugal’s Drug Decriminalization Policy Shows Positive Results. Retrieved from

WHO. (2017, June 27). Joint United Nations statement on ending discrimination in health care settings. Retrieved from

WHO. (2018b). Management of substance abuse: Facts and figures. Retrieved from

WHO. (2018a). Management of substance abuse: information sheet on opioid overdose. Retrieved from

Yakupitiyage, T. (2017, June 22). “Big Reflection” Needed on Opioid Crisis. Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: