Using the crisis to reform drug and incarceration policies

Due to border shutdowns and population lockdown, the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the illegal drug market in an unprecedented way, whilst exposing the minor nature of some drug-related offences with the release of tens of thousands of incarcerated people globally. This disruption suggests more availability, more potency, and cheaper substances on the market in the coming months. The panel explored whether the Covid-19 pandemic brought a new understanding of the interconnectedness between drug policy, public health, and criminal justice; and if drug control reforms are achievable in the foreseeable future.

Author: Sciences Po student Emma Cosmao summarizes the debate session of the third edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Debate title: From crisis to opportunity: Drug and incarceration policies during Covid-19

Date: 11 November 2020

While the Covid-19 pandemic took the world by storm, advocates for prison policy reform saw a window of opportunity to make long-term positive changes. The Paris Peace Forum provided a platform for conversation and exchange on potential solutions. The panel “From crisis to opportunity: Drug and incarceration policies during Covid-19” highlighted the cross-cutting issue of human rights as a cornerstone of policy reform on incarceration. Helen Clark (Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy), Michelle Bachelet (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), and Adelaide Anno-Kumi (Chief Director of the Ministry of the Interior of Ghana) came together to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on drug policy, public health, and criminal justice.

The discussion began with Helen Clark highlighting that drug user criminalization had hindered effective management of the pandemic. She emphasized the importance of a “Human Rights First” approach to drug control policy. Michelle Bachelet shared this view, claiming that public health policy should address all human beings, including vulnerable criminals. Therein lies the crux of the issue: drug users, often already victims of social marginalization and discrimination, should be recognized as vulnerable people in society and treated as such, particularly during a global health crisis. Adelaide Anno-Kumi provided tangible examples of the jail system in Ghana, particularly its improvements in responding to the crisis. She pointed out the pandemic’s positive side: the wide publicity it attracted to the healthcare system in jails can induce effective collaboration among stakeholders in Ghana.

The issue of drug supply chains also emphasizes and implicates related human rights violations. Reform needs to address the inconsistency between drug decriminalization and the human rights violations which are not accounted for throughout the supply chain. Reforming policy in this arena is not only feasible but potentially highly impactful. As Helen Clark pointed out, a country decriminalizing drugs should be held accountable for its responsibility to end human rights violations such as slave labor and unacceptable working conditions, which are highly documented along the supply chain. Clark firmly believes that these changes are long overdue, while Anno-Kumi attested firsthand to the devastating impact of Covid-19 on upholding human rights in prisons in Ghana and globally. “People and their rights must be on the front and center”, reaffirmed Michelle Bachelet. The consensus is clear. The Commissioner again highlighted that these failings in policy result in human rights violations: reform is needed to prevent further abuses.

The session ended with an open question: is this a crossroads for possible cultural change? Anno-Kumi once again stressed the role of citizens and their behavior towards drug users as a critical part of social change. Clark pushed her analysis further. During the pandemic, prisoners serving sentences on non-violent charges were released. In her view, this begs the question of whether they should have been imprisoned in the first place, or is there a more effective way to reprimand and rebuild?

Adelaide Anno-Kumi’s positive take on the situation is that this is a magnifying glass for a dire situation. Public attention is there, and with it, the increased platform to shift things for the better. And change is already evident – she talked about the close and efficient collaboration among stakeholders in Ghana to reduce overcrowding in prisons. “Would such a collaboration be possible outside of a pandemic?” asked the moderator, to which Adelaide Anno-Kumi answered negatively.

The platform provided by the Paris Peace Forum allowed for emphasis on the policy reforms needed to combat the human rights violations in prisons, both in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and further in the future: these cover both the reasons for serving a prison sentence and the conditions under which such a sentence is served. Criminals were sentenced (wrongfully or not) to spend time in prison: they were not sentenced to be endangered by a cluster of the first global pandemic in a century. By definition, human rights apply to all humans, yet the sad truth regarding inmates is that they are not considered as such.

By Emma Cosmao

Watch the full debate

Subscribe to the newsletter