This is a critical moment for drug prevention because so many people are confused by those whom we broadly label the anti-prohibitionists and who commonly label their goals as "harm reduction." In doing this, they reject the more than 100 year-old global commitment to protect people from illicit drugs by rejecting the drug-free goal in both prevention and treatment. Shockingly, this is done under the banner of human rights.

One of the latest examples is the Global Commission on HIV and the Law - Risks, Right and Health, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Recommendation No 3.1.4 of the report reads: "decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use, as the net effect of such sanctions is often harmful to society." Interestingly the Swedish foreign aid authority Sida is one of the financiers of the report. Should Sweden follow Recommendation 3.1.4, it would lead to major changes in Sweden’s drug policy, in breach of the UN drug conventions.

The World Federation Against Drugs (WFAD), an international network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Sweden, recently published a sharply differing report titled, The Protection of Children from Illicit Drugs - A Minimum Human Rights Standard, authored by Roxana Stere, a doctoral student at SNSPA University in Bucharest, and attorney Stephan Dahlgren, a former Head of Child Protection for UNICEF in Zambia.

The authors have reviewed the international law governing drug policy and human rights. They also examined statements from 20 NGOs and five UN agencies, which are active in this field. The main finding of the report is that Article 33 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, or CRC, is the only core UN human rights instrument that mentions illicit drugs

There can be no mistaking of the meaning and intention of CRC Article 33. It reads:

"States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances as defined in the relevant international treaties and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of such substances."

Thus, the world’s children (defined as persons under age 18) have an affirmative and essential right to drug-free childhoods. Further, it is the obligation of every country to protect and defend that right. The CRC is the most widely ratified treaty within international law and among human rights instruments (only the United States and Somalia have not ratified the CRC). CRC Article 33 must be the starting point for any discussion of drug policy and human rights, internationally as well as nationally.

How do the anti-prohibitionist arguments conform to actual human rights law, and especially to CRC Article 33? Over the last five to ten years, several intensely anti-prohibitionist NGOs broadened their scope from talking about "people who cannot stop using drug" (addicts), to include "people who do not want to stop using drugs." These organizations want to define the nonmedical use of illicit drugs as a protected lifestyle choice, for which there is no support in any of the international conventions. According to these NGOs, recreational illicit drug users must be seen as a vulnerable group in society and their decisions to use illicit drugs must be protected as a human right. These advocates seek to award any illicit drug user, whether addicted or not, the protected victim status – while their drug use continues – a status that human rights instruments today only award to very select groups such as trafficked women and children, political refugees, etc.

"The war on drugs has failed" is the most common argument from the international NGOs that want to weaken or abolish the UN drug conventions. This "war" is not called for anywhere in the conventions; it is a pejorative and inflammatory term only used by those who oppose the prohibition of illegal drug use. Even so, a "war" on illegal drug use is not prohibited by any human rights convention any more than is a war against poverty/racism/cancer or any other social or health problem. None of the NGOs examined in the Stere-Dahlgren report have defined what constitutes the "war on drugs" which they seek to stop. There is no definable legal meaning of this term in the context of human rights, and therefore it is a non-argument.

Unfortunately, the idea of drug decriminalization/legalization has a strong tailwind in the world at present. The international drug policy debate today focuses on drug-using adults and has overshadowed the moral and legal obligation to protect children from drugs. If the world put the necessary spotlight on the group most vulnerable to drugs, children, the debate would dramatically change. Drug abuse most commonly starts in adolescence, when the brain is uniquely vulnerable. Childhood is the time when drug habits are established, including for most children even today, a drug-free lifestyle. It is crucial how a society succeeds in its ambitions to protect children from drugs, including their own use and involvement in drug production and sale, and use by their caretakers. The right to a drug-free childhood under CRC Article 33 is an obligation for all countries to work to protect and a concern for all adults in the world to rally behind.

Sweden has a special responsibility in this matter with unique experience in drug policy and as an important funder of UNICEF. Maria Larsson, Minister for Children and the Elderly, delivered a well-received speech on 21 March 2011 in Vienna, at the meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, in which she pointed to the obligation of UN States to fulfill their obligation to protect children from illicit drugs according to the CRC Article 33. This was one of the few occasions when Article 33 attracted international attention at the highest level. But speech alone, even a brilliant speech like Minister Larsson’s, is not enough. Now is the time for strong political action! The Swedish government should urge UNICEF – and make funds available – to conduct a thorough analysis of CRC Article 33 and its practical implications on drug policy. UNICEF should also be instructed to recommend methods for nations to use to identify how they protect children from drugs and assess to what extent they live up to the obligations of CRC Article 33.

Robert L. DuPont, M.D., President of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc., a non-profit organization in Rockville, Maryland USA ( Previously, he was the first Director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and served as White House Drug Chief for both Presidents Nixon and Ford.

Kerstin Käll, M.D., Ph.D., Chief Medical Officer at the Dependency Clinic, University Hospital, Linköping Sweden.

Per Johansson, Secretary of the Board of WFAD, representing Europe. He is also Secretary General of the Swedish National Association for a Drug-free Society (RNS).