On the occasion of the U.N. General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem, organizations working toward gender equality call on the international community to end punitive drug policies that threaten the rights, health, and wellbeing of women, children, and families.

More than 50 years after the international community adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, calling addiction “a serious evil for the individual and a “social and economic danger to mankind.” Since then, our understanding has evolved. As recognized by the Global Commission on Drug Policy:

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. . . . [F]undamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.

Punitive drug control policies have especially failed women and families. The current global drug control regime institutionalizes laws and practices that disempower women, and violates the principles and values fundamental to women’s equality.

We recognize that:

  • Focusing on punishment has not reduced drug use nor eliminated the drug trade. Instead, prohibition and the resultant punitive policies make the drug trade more profitable and more dangerous. Prohibition has provided governments with authority to severely punish women whose role in the illicit drug economy is most often as consumers or low-level sellers, often driven by the need to provide for their families.
  • The worldwide rate of incarceration of women for minor, drug-related crimes is increasing at an alarming rateThe impact of punitive drug policies is increasingly falling on women, and the rate of incarceration of women —  especially racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities — is increasing at an unprecedented rate.
  • Incarcerating women leaves children vulnerable by separating them from their mothersThe vast majority of women who are incarcerated around the world for drug-related offenses are mothers. Drug policies focusing on punishment not only deprive women of their freedom, but also compromise the wellbeing of children who are forcibly separated from their mothers or are incarcerated with them. Increasingly, punishment as a response to drug use also includes removal of children and termination of parental rights.
  • Women receive disproportionate and unfair punishment for low-level drug offenses. Drug trafficking organizations that thrive under existing global drug policies often take advantage of women’s poverty and need to provide for their families, for example, inducing women to carry illegal drugs across international borders. Women are uniquely vulnerable to prosecution and incarceration based on their relationships with others who are involved in the illegal drug trade rather than their own leadership or conduct in that trade.
  • Incarceration of drug users and small-scale sellers threatens the economic security of women and families. Because women are most likely to be primary caretakers for families, criminalization creates a cycle of poverty that impedes women’s access to healthcare, livelihood, and political rights. Furthermore, incarceration destabilizes families both socially and economically.
  • Stigma and misinformation perpetuated by misguided drug policies undermine women’s status. Global drug policies have led to incarceration, involuntary detention in treatment facilitiesforced treatment or drug withdrawal, and imposition of sanctions. Such penalties disproportionately target marginalized womenespecially poor women and members of certain ethnic and racial groups. These policies encourage social stigma, shame, and discrimination, whether formal penalties are imposed. Pregnant and parenting women are especially stigmatized by campaigns exaggerating and misstating the relative risks of harm from prenatal drug exposure.
  • Women are more vulnerable to violence and have fewer options for challenging that violence when drug control policy focuses on punishment. With worldwide recognition that gender-based violence is a pandemic in diverse forms, global drug policies have only added to this harm and subjected more women to violence. Women are subject to trafficking, abuse and sexual assault by those involved in the drug trade and by those charged with enforcing drug laws.
  • Crop eradication campaigns endanger the health of women and children. Supply-side interventions have proven ineffective in eliminating cultivation and production of narcotics. Instead, they fuel widespread environmental destruction. Crop eradication practices such as aerial spraying of defoliants cause disease, including cancer and reproductive harms, to the women and children who work in the places being fumigated.
  • Global drug policies that result in violence against women and the loss of livelihoods is creating a class of refugees through forced migration. Crop eradication that has eliminated people’s livelihoods and the unremitting violence fueled by increasingly militarized drug interdiction policies have driven women to migrate in search of safety and opportunity. When women migrate across borders, they become effectively stateless and are more vulnerable to exploitation, sexual violence, physical assault, separation from children, and subjection to expulsion, imprisonment, and other penalties as a result of their status.
  • Women face discrimination and risk punishment in seeking effective and appropriate drug treatment. Women face significant barriers to accessing appropriate drug treatment, including lack of childcare, lack of trauma-informed care, and threats of arrest if they reveal that they are pregnant. Without access to nondiscriminatory healthcare, including drug treatment, a woman’s chance of acquiring HIV or Hepatitis-C, experiencing homelessness, drug overdose, and significant family rupture all increase.
  • Drug-using women are targeted for campaigns of sterilization and abortion. Stigmatizing and false information about the relative risks of harm from drug use by pregnant women, the parenting ability of such women, and the health and safety of their children is used to justify preventing certain women from becoming pregnant or parenting. Policies that punish women who use drugs during pregnancies also put pressure on women to terminate pregnancies as a means of avoiding arrest or detention.                

These failures have come at enormous cost to women. In almost every nation, punitive drug policies have the greatest impact on women who are coping with poverty, histories of physical and sexual violence, untreated mental health concerns, inadequate support systems, and marginalization due to race or ethnicity. As we look to the future, we have the opportunity to rethink how to treat and effectively serve women who use drugs, sell drugs, or are linked to others who do.

We therefore call on policymakers to end the injustice perpetuated by global drug prohibition and instead support drug policies grounded in science, compassion, and human rights by:

  1. Incorporating a gender analysis in all conventions, declarations, and reports on drugs.
  2. Prioritizing alleviation of the social and economic conditions that contribute to problematic drug involvement.
  3. Approaching problematic drug use as a health issue and scaling up resources for supportive health interventions.
  4. Eliminating the use of incarceration and punishment for drug offenses. Incarceration should be viewed as a scarce and expensive resource that should be used only for persons who pose a serious public safety threat and then only for a reasonable amount of time sufficient to eliminate the threat. Incarceration of pregnant and parenting women should be rare and exceptional.
  5. Eliminating any post-conviction sanctions that exacerbate the punitive impact of drug offenses. These sanctions often extend far beyond a given sentence or punishment and further marginalize women, children, and families.
  6. Ensuring that all drug treatment services are evidence-based and meet women’s specific medical, psychological, and social needs, especially during pregnancy and parenting.        
  7. Undertaking research into the impacts of punitive drug policies on women, children, and families, and using it to inform and improve policymaking.        
  8. Meaningfully involving women who use drugs in policy and program planning, implementation, and evaluation.