Drugs and human rights

A world-first ‘post-human rights’ framework for drug policy: Improving social, economic and health outcomes


Kate Seear, Sean Mulcahy

Since the early 1960s, international treaties have characterised certain drugs as illicit, prohibiting their use, possession and supply. However, global drug policy is currently undergoing a seismic shift. In early 2019, the heads of all thirty-one United Nations agencies released a communiqué calling for the decriminalisation of drugs and a move away from ineffective penal approaches. Importantly, the call for change noted that reforms must be shaped by human rights. The latest International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy recommend that all countries undertake a ‘transparent review’ of existing drug laws and policies for their compliance with human rights, and subject all proposed new drug legislation to human rights ‘assessment’.

While these calls are welcome, they assume that human rights provide an effective framework to guide reform and that human rights will enable less punitive approaches to drug use. However, human rights do not always work this way. Seventy years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people who use drugs still endure human rights abuses, such as forced drug treatment and forced drug withdrawal. If human rights are an effective framework to prevent punitive approaches towards people who use drugs, why haven’t they prevented such practices up until now?

With new Australian drug laws in some jurisdictions now required to comply with human rights frameworks, this four-year research project is being undertaken in order to learn more about:

  • How human rights have informed Australian drug policy in the past
  • What ideas about drugs and the human have shaped these approaches
  • Whether such ideas are problematic or outmoded
  • Whether human rights provide the best framework for guiding legal and policy reform in relation to alcohol and other drugs – and if not, what alternatives, such as a ‘post–human rights’ framework, might look like.

Associated publications

Researchers at ARCSHS are working on more academic publications from the Drugs and Human Rights project. They will feature here as they are published.


This project is funded by the Australian Research Council: FT200100099.


For latest information on the project, please visit the Gender, Law and Drugs Program website and Twitter.