A Rights Based Approach to the issue of Drugs

What is the problem?

The use of drugs and alcohol can lead to considerable social isolation and anxiety.  Debates on the issue are divisive and polarised. The approach in respect of children and illicit drugs, in particular, has tended to focus solely on prevention and abstinence, such as in education campaigns. Denying or hoping that children do not use substances might mean that children are denied access to services and treatment. Countries such as Sweden, for example, restrict access to 'harm reduction' services, which concentrate on the harm caused by psychoactive substances rather than enforcing abstinence for under 18s. This means that children who are not abstaining or cannot are denied access to vital health, information and advice services. Such policies are not rights-based because they violate the right to health as well as the right to non-discrimination on the basis of age.

More recently, this one-way approach has been criticised, for example by Harm Reduction International, (http://www.ihra.net/) for neglecting the needs and rights of children who do use drugs and alcohol regardless of the best efforts to prevent such behaviour. 


Human rights standards

Relevant articles from the Convention on the Rights of the Child include: Protection from drug use and involvement in the drug trade (Article 33), the right to life, survival and development (Article 6), non-discrimination (Article 2), the right to health (Article 24), access to appropriate information (Article 17), children in conflict with the law (Articles 37, 40), the right to participate (Article 12) and the right to education (Article 28)


What can be done?

A rights-based approach to drug and alcohol policy in respect of children would involve the supply of information that children need in order to make decisions around drug and alcohol use. It would recognise that ensuring the right to health for children may include encouraging abstinence from use, but it would also recognise that the children who are using substances need realistic, age-appropriate information about how to minimise the possible ensuing harms.

A rights based approach would not criminalise children for using drugs, and would involve the provision of age-appropriate harm reduction services. It would include the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of drugs policies and programmes, including the participation of children who use drugs and alcohol, in order to periodically assess them for effectiveness and non-discrimination. (Certain children, perhaps because of their ethnicity or sexual orientation, for example, may have unequal access to harm reduction services – or drug and alcohol education may not reflect the needs of certain minorities).

The aim of a rights-based approach is to shift the focus from purely paternalistic approaches to children and substance use, which may neglect the real-world health and social needs of children who use substances, to an approach which favours access, empowerment, accountability and participation.


More on this:

CRIN: Children's rights and drugs briefing: http://www.crin.org/resources/infodetail.asp?id=22817

Harm Reduction International (2009): Drugs, Harm Reduction and the CRC