The Global Drug Policy Index – 5 key takeaways from UNITE’s Global Policy Summit Session

At the UNITE Global Summit, Harm Reduction International hosted a session launching the first-ever Global Drug Policy Index (GDPI). The GDPI was launched to document, measure, and compare drug policies worldwide and gives each country a score based on its harm reduction efforts.

Assessing data based on 30 countries, the GDPI explores five dimensions – use of extreme sentencing, the proportionality of criminal justice responses, health and harm reduction, the availability of controlled medicines, and (where relevant) alternative development.

As Beatrix Vaz, from Youth RISE/UNITE, explained during the Unite Global Summit session: “Data collection by governments often does not take into account the human rights of people who use drugs, and is more focused on creating a drug-free world.”

It is hoped that the GDPI will help societies to promote human rights and harm reduction, and – through reliable data – help hold governments accountable for their drug policies. Communities of people who use drugs participated in the creation of the index.

The launch session included speakers and panellists from UNITE and Harm Reduction International alongside parliamentarians and representatives from Australia, Norway, Georgia, and Portugal.

Here are our key takeaways from this important session.

1. Harm reduction is stalling

Colleen Daniels, Deputy Director and Public Health Lead at Harm Reduction International, shared data regarding the stalling of harm reduction services. 

The data shows that lifesaving needle and syringe programs and Opioid Agonist Therapy (OAT) have both been in decline since 2014. Approximately half of the countries with injecting drug use do not provide these services.

“Harm reduction services like these are innovative public health interventions and are pivotal in reaching marginalised populations,” explained Colleen. “They are also key to addressing overdose, HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis crises.”

2. We need more funding, and it needs to be spent the right way

Catherine Cook, HRI’s Sustainable Financing Lead, shared data on the harm reduction funding crisis (read the Failure to Fund report here). “Harm reduction funding is only 5% of what is required in low and middle-income countries and this funding gap has been growing.”

The index clearly demonstrates there is a lack of sustainable funding for harm reduction in the majority of countries. Governments urgently need to increase funding and invest in programs that prioritise health, human rights and affected communities.

There is hope though, with some countries slowly beginning to fund more harm reduction initiatives. Mariam Jashi, UNITE Board Member and Member of Parliament in Georgia, explained how Georgia is transitioning from international support to government funding. However, COVID-19 and internal policies are slowing down this transition.

“We are currently implementing, in major cities, important policies for harm reduction but unfortunately rural areas do not receive the same attention,” explained Mariam.

Mariam also spoke of how successful case studies of harm reduction like Portugal offer hope to other countries and demonstrate what is possible.

3. It starts with decriminalisation

Decriminalisation was a core topic of the discussion, with Beatriz Gomes Dias, Member of Parliament in Portugal and Member of the Lisbon City Council, explaining the important role that decriminalisation played in Portugal’s harm reduction efforts.

“Decriminalisation is a very important tool because it promotes access to health services,” Beatriz explained. “It is a way to protect human rights and prevent overdoses.


Read more: the key considerations for the decriminalisation of drug use.


Fiona Patten, Victorian Legislative Council spoke of how the idea of decriminalisation is finally starting to gain momentum in Australia, where, according to Fiona, there is also support from the police – who don’t want to spend their time arresting people for drug use.

But decriminalisation still requires education.

Sveinung Stensland, a member of parliament for Norway, said: “Earlier this year we debated in parliament about the possibility of decriminalisation. A lot of people were concerned thinking it meant the legalisation of all drugs. It is important to inform people about the differences between decriminalisation and legalisation of all drugs, and most importantly about the importance of promoting the first one.”

4. We need to include the voices of people who use drugs

Australia’s Fiona Patten was asked about the challenges of equitable harm reduction services for Indigenous people. Over 10% of people who access injecting drugs in Melbourne (the capital of Victoria, a state in Australia) are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This high percentage is a result of years of displacement and colonisation.

“We need to allow the community to lead the process,” explained Fiona. “They are the ones who can help to create the proper programs.”

It was also discussed how policies need to respect every aspect of human rights, from homelessness and poverty, to education and more.

5. COVID-19 is no excuse to let harm reduction effort lapse

HRI’s Colleen Daniels concluded the session with a powerful message: “COVID rules and restrictions have been used as an excuse for governments to violate human rights in general, but especially of people who use drugs.”

Like UNITE and HRI, here at INHSU we believe it’s time for that to change, and we can see the transparency, reliability of data, and community-driven effort of the GDPI playing a core role in making this happen.

To find out more about the project – and how your country is performing – visit the website.

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