It was a gentle clash of ideas at the Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria,  when two distinctive personalities, Mr Stephen Lewis, the Co-Director of AIDS-Free World, and Mr Mandiaye Niang, the Regional Representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southern Africa presented brilliant arguments for and against an interesting theme: Is strict control of drugs essential to the realisation of the right to health  before  a diversified audience drawn from different states of Africa. Moderated by Ms Mary Crewe, the Director of the Centre for the Study of AIDS, the highly informative event was organised jointly by the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, the University of Essex and the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria.

The issue of drug control has been topical in recent times as several people and states have been torn between strict regulation of hard drugs to preserve health, on one hand and decriminalisation of drug use, on the other. In his presentation, Mr Mandiaye Niang argued that while there may exist challenges in the implementation of the legal framework around the control of drug, the idea behind it is to prevent harm and ensure the realisation of the right to health. Mr Stephen Lewis however viewed differently. Drawing the attention of participants to various reports on the subject, Mr Lewis was of the passionate view that the fight against drug is being carried out in a ruthless manner that ostracises addicts, some of whom are living with HIV, from the treatment required for their survival. In driving such people into background and out of care, Mr Stephen strongly contended that such an approach violates the right to health. In his final view, the global war against drug has failed, hence, it is important to conceive a more innovative approach on the issue of drug control.  

The debate generated numerous questions from participants. An important question centred on the correlation between human right to health and criminalisation of the use of drugs.  Drawing from mounting reports, Mr Lewis explained passionately that international legal framework on this subject often inspire states to implement laws  in such manner that results into the stigmatisation and incarceration of those identified as addicts. This, he explained prevents them from receiving the treatment they so much need to survive and thereby constitutes a threat to their right to health.

When the attention of the participants turned to Mr Niang’s presentation, the pertinent question for which his input was invited is whether anything has changed in the fight against drugs since its criminalisation. In response to this question, Mr Niang noted that perhaps criminalisation is justified, particularly, considering the association of drug users with violent crimes and the medical proof showing its damaging effects on mental health. It is therefore no surprise, in his further view, that there are domestic laws put in place and being implemented by states in relation to strict control of drugs.  While it is difficult to measure what has changed, he concluded, the existence of such laws at international and domestic levels at least serve some deterrence function.

In all, there was consensus that international and domestic approach on the issue of drug control should view the so called ‘drug addicts’ as patients in need of help and not as criminals to be hunted and incarcerated. Any approach other than this will constitute a threat to the realisation of the right to health.


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