Skip to main content

The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2023 [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #1201)
Consequences of Prohibition

Read Phil's 2023 top ten domestic drug policy stories here.

UN Human Rights Office Calls for Sweeping Drug Policy Reform, Considering Decriminalization and Regulation

A UN human rights report released in September calls for a shift from punitive measures to address the global drugs problem to the use of policies grounded in human rights and public health, arguing that disproportionate use of criminal penalties is causing harm.

November brought some hope with the release of Philippine former senator Leila de Lima (protest photo from Feb. 2018)
The report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urges states to develop effective drug policies, including by considering decriminalization of drug possession for personal use. "If effectively designed and implemented, decriminalization can be a powerful instrument to ensure that the rights of people who use drugs are protected," it says. But the report also suggests considering "tak[ing] control of illegal drug markets through responsible regulation, to eliminate profits from illegal trafficking, criminality and violence... [by] developing a regulatory system for legal access to all controlled substances."

"Laws, policies and practices deployed to address drug use must not end up exacerbating human suffering. The drugs problem remains very concerning, but treating people who use drugs as criminals is not the solution," said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk. "States should move away from the current dominant focus on prohibition, repression and punishment, and instead embrace laws, policies and practices anchored in human rights and aimed at harm reduction."

There has also been an increase in the use of the death penalty for drug-related convictions worldwide, contrary to international human rights law norms and standards. The recorded number of people executed for drug-related offenses more than doubled in 2022 compared to 2021, amounting to 37 percent of all executions recorded globally, the report states.

"The current overemphasis on coercion and control to counter drugs is fanning an increase in human rights violations despite mounting evidence that decades of criminalization and the so-called war on drugs have neither protected the welfare of people nor deterred drug-related crime," Türk said.

The report shows that an increasing number of countries across regions are adopting policies and practices that decriminalize drug use and treat drug usage as a public health and human rights issue, and applying evidence-based, gender-sensitive and harm reduction approaches. The High Commissioner called on states to build on this positive trend.

Afghanistan Opium Production Plummets After Taliban Ban, but Myanmar Opium Production More Than Makes Up Difference

Opium poppies. There were many fewer of them in Afghanistan this year. (UNODC)
For more than 20 years, Afghanistan has been the undisputed leader in global opium production. Not anymore. After regaining power in 2021, the Taliban announced a ban on opium production last year, and during the course of this year, it became clear that the ban was working -- sort of.

In April,the BBC traveled the country, consulted with farmers, government ministers, and experts, and used satellite analysis to report: "The Taliban leaders appear to have been more successful cracking down on cultivation than anyone ever has. We found a huge fall in poppy growth in major opium-growing provinces, with one expert saying annual cultivation could be 80% down on last year. Less-profitable wheat crops have supplanted poppies in fields -- and many farmers saying they are suffering financially."

In October, a satellite analysis of the Afghan opium crop by the geographic information services company Alcis estimated that opium cultivation has declined by 85 percent since the Taliban re-took power and decreed a ban on it.

Poppy cultivation was nearly half a million acres in 2022 but dropped below 75,000 acres this year, leading experts to describe the ban "as the most successful counternarcotics effort in human history." The key opium-producing province of Helmand saw a whopping 99 percent reduction in cultivation, while Farah saw a 95 percent reduction, and Nimroz saw a 91 percent reduction.

In November, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that poppy cultivation dropped to just 26,700 acres this year, down from more than 500,000 acres in 2022, resulting in a 95 percent decrease in production and limiting supply to 333 tons.

While the ban has been successful in eliminating the poppy crop, it is having serious consequences for the population since opium production provided a livelihood for millions of Afghans and two-thirds of the population is already in need of humanitarian aid.

"Over the coming months Afghanistan is in dire need of strong investment in sustainable livelihoods to provide Afghan farmers with opportunities away from opium," said Ghada Waly, the executive director of UNODC. "This presents a real opportunity to build towards long-term results against the illicit opium market and the damage it causes both locally and globally."

And in December, the UNODC made it official: Afghanistan is no longer the world's largest opium producer, the agency reported. That title now goes to Myanmar, which produced an estimated 1,080 metric tons of opium this year, up 36 percent over the 790 metric tons produced last year. That is more than twice as much opium as Afghanistan produced.

Singapore Goes on Drug Execution Binge

The authoritarian city-state at the tip of the Malay Peninsula has some of the world's harshest drug laws and had been one of the world's leading drug executioners. It halted all executions during the coronavirus pandemic, but resumed them in 2022, sending 11 people to the gallows, all of them for drug offenses.

It has kept it up this year. In April, Singapore executed Tangaraju Suppiah, 46, for trafficking 2.2 pounds of pot despite an international outcry. Under Singapore law, trafficking more than 1.1 pounds of pot can garner a death sentence. Three weeks later, an unnamed 37-year-old Malay Singaporean was executed for trafficking about 3.3 pounds of pot.

In July, authorities hanged a 56-year-old man, Mohammed Aziz Hussain, after he was sentenced to death in 2018 for trafficking less than two ounces of heroin, and then hung a woman, Saridewi Djamani, 45, for trafficking slightly more than an ounce of heroin in 2018. She was the first woman executed in the country in 20 years. And in August, Mohamed Shalleh Abdul Latiff, 39, was hanged at Changi Prison for trafficking under two ounces of heroin. That brought the total number of drug offenders killed by the state since the end of the pandemic moratorium to 16.

Amnesty International called on the government to halt the executions: "It is unconscionable that authorities in Singapore continue to cruelly pursue more executions in the name of drug control," Amnesty's death penalty expert Chiara Sangiorgio said in a statement. "There is no evidence that the death penalty has a unique deterrent effect or that it has any impact on the use and availability of drugs. As countries around the world do away with the death penalty and embrace drug policy reform, Singapore's authorities are doing neither."

Both the UNODC and the INCB -- two UN bodies in charge of developing and monitoring drug policies -- have condemned the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses and have urged governments to move towards abolition. Singapore is one of only four countries, alongside China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, where executions for drug-related offenses were confirmed in 2022.

Philippines Deals with Duterte's Dirty Drug War Legacy

It has been a year and a half since Rodrigo Duterte, the architect of a drug war that led to the killings of tens of thousands, left office, but his bloody legacy endures. His successor, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has dampened Duterte's drug war but the killings continue -- albeit at a lower rate.

As Human Rights Watch reported in January, "Marcos, in public statements and in meetings with foreign leaders, has said he would continue the war against drugs policy that he inherited from his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, but would shift the focus to rehabilitating drug users. So far, the killings of alleged drug dealers and users continue, and needed reforms have not been made to existing drug rehabilitation programs. Rights groups and advocates of drug policy reform have criticized the existing programs as coercive and punitive, and said that they stigmatize drug users."

Things had not gotten any better by June, when Human Rights Watch reported that "police and their agents continue their drug war killings, although at a lower rate than during the Duterte administration." And according to data compiled by DahasPH, that lower rate had been reached before Duterte left office.

Duterte may be gone, but he is not forgotten, especially by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which began a probe of his drug war in 2018 but suspended that query in November 2021 at the request of the Philippines after the government there said it was conducting its own review. In January, the ICC reopened its investigation, with the ICC noting that it was "not satisfied that the Philippines is undertaking relevant investigations that would warrant a deferral of the Court's investigations. The various domestic initiatives and proceedings, assessed collectively, do not amount to tangible, concrete and progressive investigative steps in a way that would sufficiently mirror the Court's investigation."

ICC investigations may or may not lead to trials. If, during investigations, the prosecutor finds sufficient evidence to prosecute, they must identify a suspect and request either an arrest warrant or a summons to appear. A group of pretrial judges ultimately decides whether a case should be brought to trial.

In the meantime, 2023 was a good year for former Senator Leila de Lima, who had been jailed ever since 2017 on bogus drug charges after she criticized Duterte's drug war. In May, she was acquitted on one of those bogus charges. In that one, Duterte accused her of taking bribes from drug gangs in prisons in the wake of her Senate investigation of his drug crackdown. That was the second charge on which she has been acquitted. A third charge remains pending, although critics of the campaign against her have called for it to be dropped. In December, she was granted bail after being held in prison for nearly seven years, after a judge found the evidence against her was not strong.

Amnesty International called on the Marcos administration to ensure De Lima's safety. "The government must now guarantee her safety, security and protection as she remains the target of vilification and threats," it said in a statement.

Colombia Moves Away from Drug War Orthodoxy

Leftist President Gustavo Petro took office in mid-2022 vowing to change his country's prohibitionist drug policies, and this year, he took steps on various fronts to that end.

He began the year with an announcement that his government would reduce forced coca eradication efforts. A new National Policy will reduce forced eradication efforts by 60 percent as the government experiments with alternative approaches to the coca cultivation problem. Police said they were unable to reach their 2022 goal because of blockades by grower communities that prevented the entry of eradicators.

Then, in February, Petro's National Narcotics Council, which is charged with implementing and evaluating the National Drug Policy over the next decade, said it was considering legalizing small coca plots. The move would be aimed at crops between six and 25 acres and seek to reduce the persecution of peasant producers for mixing illicit crops with their food crops. Police said they were unable to reach their 2022 goal because of blockades by grower communities that prevented the entry of eradicators.

Petro's government also took its reformist bent to the United Nations, joining with Bolivia to ask for the removal of coca from the list of prohibited narcotics. The two countries want the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to drop coca leaf from its list of prohibited substances and acknowledge the plant's traditional uses in Andean culture. And Vice President Francia Marquez used an address at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to call for coca leaf decriminalization in the country's indigenous territories.

The Petro government also made itself heard on the world stage outside of the UN. In September, working in conjunction with Mexico, led the 19 countries attending the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs in calling of a rethink of the war on drugs. "What I propose is to have a different and unified voice that defends our society, our future and our history and stops repeating a failed discourse," Petro said. He argued that it was wrong to look at drug control "as a military problem and not as a health problem in society."

Meanwhile, Petro's government has been engaged in peace talks with the leftist rebels of the ELN, who are involved in the drug trade but who seek a "temporary, nationwide cease-fire" and an agreement that includes "an alternative anti-drug policy that is no longer based on repression and war." The ELN has a presence in some 200 Colombian townships, mostly in areas of widespread coca cultivation and cocaine production. In August, the government signed a six-month truce agreement with the rebels.

More than 450,000 Colombians are estimated to have been killed in the multi-sided conflict that has gone on since the 1960s, much of it financed by the cocaine trade. The ceasefire is supposed to end attacks between guerrillas and Colombian security forces and can be extended in January if progress is made during peace negotiations.

Petro supports marijuana legalization and backed a bill to do so in the congress, but his supporters saw legalization rejected on a final Senate vote in June. Supporters tried again in the fall, only to see legalization sunk again in the Senate in December.

Also in December, Petro executive action to advance drug reform, issuing an executive order to reinstate drug decriminalization. His order applies to up to 30 grams of marijuana and five grams of cocaine. In doing so, Petro nullified an earlier decree from his predecessor, rightist Ivan Duque, that allowed police to pursue people for both consumption and possession of small quantities of drugs, even though Duque's degree clashed with a 1994 Constitutional Court decision mandating decriminalization.

Scottish Authorities Approve United Kingdom's First Safe Injection Site

In October, authorities in Glasgow approved the first safe injection site in the UK. Glasgow's Integration Joint Board, which consists of National Health Service representatives and council officials, issued the final approval days after Scotland's senior law officer said users would not be prosecuted for possessing drugs while at the facility and the Home Office in London said it would not interfere.

A safe injection site has been discussed for years to address the estimated 400-500 people injecting drugs in the city center but was only able to move forward after winning those key approvals.

There is an opening target date of next summer for what will be a three-year pilot program.

The safe injection site will be based at Hunter Street in the east end of the city alongside a clinic where 23 long-term drug users are currently prescribed pharmaceutical heroin. Users will be able to inject drugs at the Glasgow facility but not smoke them. Allowing smoking of illegal substances would run afoul of Scottish anti-smoking laws.

Scotland has the highest per capita drug overdose death rate in Europe and has seen more than a thousand people die of overdoses each year since 2020.

Thailand's Marijuana Reform Seesaw

In June 2022, the Thai government removed marijuana from the country's narcotics list, allowing people to grow all the weed they want and freeing more than 3,000 marijuana prisoners. But the law only legalized marijuana extracts containing less than 0.2 percent THC, meaning that while people can grow all the plants they want, consuming what they produce will remain technically illegal, as is the case with sales now.

But that did not stop the use and sale of full-potency marijuana. What began as a flowering of edibles and tinctures shops in mid-2022 had by the beginning of this year morphed into a full-blown recreational marijuana scene, with thousands of dispensaries of dubious legality and the government impotently warning a tide of marijuana tourists they were not welcome.

But a new government led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin took power in September vowing to pull back the reins and limit legalization strictly to medical marijuana. "The law will need to be rewritten," Srettha said. "It needs to be rectified. We can have that regulated for medical use only."

Srettha's Pheu Thai Party ran a hardline anti-drug campaign and vowed to undo decriminalization, but his party is part of an 11-party governing coalition, and some of his partners have different ideas. One partner party, for example, wants tighter control over the industry but not reverting to classifying the plant as a drug.

Thailand was the first Asian country to free the weed, but now the pendulum appears to be swinging in the other direction. Perhaps 2024 will be the year it all gets settled.

Luxembourg Legalizes Home Marijuana Cultivation and Possession

In June, lawmakers approved a bill allowing Luxembourgers to grow up to four plants and possess and consume the drug at home. It went into effect in July, making Luxembourg the second European Union country to free the weed, after Malta.

The new law also decriminalizes the possession of up to three grams outside the home. People caught with less than three grams will face a fine of around $160, down from the current onerous $2725. They will face no criminal proceedings and the offense will not be added to their criminal records. Possession of more than three grams can result in higher fines and even possible jail time.

The bill was supported by the government, the leftist Dei Link Party and the Pirate Party and opposed by the Christian Democrats. Lawmakers of the right populist ADR split on the measure.

The government in 2018 originally pledged to create a legal marijuana market with state-monitored marijuana cultivation and sales but faced legal hurdles at home and pressure from other European Union countries and retreated to the home cultivation and possession law. The government still has a full legalization bill in the works and sees this law as the first step toward full legalization.

Dutch Legal Marijuana Supply Pilot Program Begins

A pilot project in supplying the country's famous cannabis coffeeshops with legally obtained marijuana got underway in December, with two government-approved growers ready to supply coffeeshops in Breda and Tilburg. The coffeeshops will be able to sell both legally produced and black market weed, and two more legal suppliers will begin supplying coffeeshops in the two cities with more in February 2024.

It is part of the Dutch government's "experiment with a legalized production and sales chain" and is aimed at solving the longstanding "back door problem," wherein marijuana possession and sales are tolerated but there is no legal supply source, leaving coffeeshops to rely on the black market and enriching criminal organizations.

This preparatory phase should be over in six months, and coffeeshops will begin the transition phase at the end of the first quarter of next year. During this phase, participating coffeeshops will be able to sell both legally grown and black-market product. Six weeks after the transitional phase begins, the experimental phase will begin. Then participating coffeeshops will from then on be able to sell only cannabis from regulated crops.

Germany Should Be Just Weeks Away from Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana legalization hit yet another bump down what has been a very bumpy path with the announcement in December that a final vote on legalization in the Bundestag had been called off after leaders from the Social Democratic Party (SDP) had last-second jitters. The delay means no vote on legalization is likely to occur until next year.

German lawmakers had spent all year trying to get to a final vote, but that was not to be. After reaching an initial accord earlier in the year, the bill was delayed in October, when debate was postponed because of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, and delayed again in November, as proponents sought to make improvements in it.

And they did. One change is that possessing slightly more marijuana than the amount allowed will not automatically be treated as a criminal offense, with possession of between 25 and 30 grams treated as an administrative violation. Likewise, the possession limit for marijuana at home is doubled from 25 to 50 grams, with possession of up to 60 grams treated administratively.

Lawmakers also agreed to legalize marijuana in stages, with possession and home cultivation legal for adults beginning in April. Social clubs that could distribute marijuana to members could now start to open in July.

After the legalization bill passes the Bundestag, lawmakers will work on creating a system for legal, regulated sales. That will happen while they wait for a concurring vote in the Bundesrat, a separate body that represents the states.

Then came the SPD's querulousness. SPD lawmakers did not specify their concerns, but hearing in the Bundestag provided a hint, with some suggesting that legalization would "send the wrong message" to youth and lead to increased underage consumption. Health Minister Karl Lauterbach pushed back on that claim, saying: "The fact remains that child and youth protection is carried out through education, and sales to children and young people remain prohibited," Lauterbach said. "That is the only change we have made in this area: a tightening."

Still, the bill is delayed and Germany did not legalize marijuana in 2023.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.