Drug detention

What is “compulsory drug detention” or “drug detention”?

The United Nations (UN) defines compulsory drug detention, often simplified as “drug detention”, as instances in which “… people who are suspected of using drugs or being dependent on drugs… are detained without due process in the name of ‘treatment’ or ‘rehabilitation’…”[1]

Why is drug detention a human rights issue?

Drug detention is a human rights issue because it occurs “without the benefit of sufficient due process, legal safeguards, or judicial review.”[2] The UN confirms that “the deprivation of liberty without due process is an unacceptable violation of internationally recognised human rights standards.”[3]

In 2012, approximately 243 million people, or 5% of the world’s population between the ages of 15 and 64, used an illicit drug at least once.[4]  Unfortunately, many national drug policies treat drug use as a crime instead of a medical or social issue. This forces people who use drugs to adopt unsafe practices, such as sharing needles and forgoing health services, which increase the risk of poor health and illness.[5]  

The criminalization of drug use and possession has also led to a large – and growing – prison population.[6]  According to the 2014 World Drug Report, more than 10.2 million people are held in prison on any single day, with the majority of those incarcerated for drug-related offences.[7] The Global Commission on HIV and the Law has found that the groups most likely to be detained are often economically and socially marginalized groups whose vulnerability is further increased by the stigma associated with drug use.[8]

What are the relevant sources?

According to international human rights law, people who use drugs have the right to life, liberty, health, bodily integrity, privacy, education, equality before the law, freedom of movement, information, assembly and association.[9, 10, 11]. These laws include:

  • Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights mandates the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and includes the right to obtain health services without fear of punishment.[12]
  • Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects individuals against arbitrary arrest or detention.[13]
  • Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ensures the humane treatment of anyone who is arrested or detained.[14]
  • Article 4 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment prohibits all acts of torture in states’ criminal law codes.[15]
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) protects individuals from torture and degrading treatment (Article 5), arbitrary arrest or detention (Article 9), and discrimination (Articles 1 and 2). The UDHR also protects an individual’s right to health (Article 25), privacy (Article 12), and assembly (Article 20).[16]

What are the relevant issues/problems related to drug detention?

Drug detention negatively affects a detainee’s health through:

  • increased susceptibility to HIV and tuberculosis
  • physical and sexual abuse
  • forced labour
  • unsanitary living conditions
  • and the denial of health services while in custody.[17]

Moreover, drug detention is an ineffective and expensive method for controlling drug use, preventing relapse of narcotics use or reducing the spread of HIV.[18] 

How can the situation be improved?

Research conducted by UN agencies suggests that this situation can be improved by closing all detention centres and releasing all individuals currently incarcerated in such centres.[19]In addition, the UN has called on member states to immediately establish the following:

  • Legal processes to ensure detention is conducted in accordance with international standards of due process and provides an alternative to imprisonment
  • Review procedures to assess conditions in detention centres and other settings to confirm they meet international standards with access to quality and evidence-based health services as well as social and education services
  • Moratoria on further admission to detention centres [20].

What can health workers do?

Deputy Director of the International Harm Reduction Programme Denise Tomasini-Joshi [21] believes there are several steps that health workers and their associations can take to mitigate the problem of drug detention. These include:

  • Funding “low-barrier” services
  • Educating health workers on science-based addiction treatment
  • Developing hospital/care centre policies/protocols that are in line with human rights and civil rights laws.

Tomasini-Joshi also advises health workers to ensure that their services are user-centred.  Services that focus on the needs of the user will be accessed by users.  Also, it is essential to provide training against stigma.  Stigmatizing attitudes held by health providers can prevent those in need of services from receiving help. Health centres should have privacy protections in place that prevent workers from disclosing unnecessary information to family and law enforcement, and encourage users to access services voluntarily.  Finally, health-care facilities should implement internal reporting mechanisms for health workers to be able to document and prevent abuses against users in an anonymous but effective way, and to make “protecting the patient/user” a key marker of performance in their jobs.

This page was written by Tara Ornstein and last updated in October 2014.


[1] United Nations. Joint statement on compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centreshttp://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=11941&LangID=E

[2] http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=11941&LangID=E

[3] http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=11941&LangID=E

[4] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. World Drug Report 2014. Geneva; 2014. http://www.unodc.org/wdr2014/

[5] Ibid.

[6] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. World Drug Report 2014. Geneva; 2014. http://www.unodc.org/wdr2014/ Page 11.

[7] http://www.unodc.org/wdr2014/

[8] Global Commission on HIV and the Law. HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights, and Health. New York; 2012. http://www.hivlawcommission.org/index.php/report

[9] Jurgens, Ralf et al. “People who use drugs, HIV, and human rights.” Lancet 376; 2010. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2810%2960830-6/abstract

[10] Csete, J. “Lethal violations: human rights abuses faced by injection drug users in the area of HIV/AIDS.” War on Drugs, HIV/AIDS, and Human Rights. New York; 2004. p. 212-227.

[11] Wolfe, D. Illicit Drug Policies and the Global HIV Epidemic. New York; 2004. http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/reports/illicit-drug-policies-and-global-hiv-epidemic

[12] International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Article 12. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx

[13] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx

[14] Ibid.

[15] Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx

[16] Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

[17] Health and Human Rights Resource Guide. “Chapter Four: Harm Reduction and Human Rights.” FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. http://hhrguide.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/…/HHRRG_Chapter-4.pdf

[18] http://www.hivlawcommission.org/index.php/report

[19] http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=11941&LangID=E

[20] Ibid. 

[21] Personal communication



Type of resource: Books and reports

Detention and Punishment in the Name of Drug Treatment (2016) - Joanne Csete & Richard Pearshouse
Open Society Foundations

Open resource
Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

“They Treat Us Like Animals” Mistreatment of Drug Users and “Undesirables” in Cambodia’s Drug Detention Centers (2013) - Joseph Amon
Human Rights Watch

Open resource
Type of resource: Books and reports

Torture in the Name of Treatment. Human Rights Abuses in Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Lao PDR (2012)
Human Rights Watch

Open resource
Type of resource: Books and reports

The Rehab Archipelago – Forced Labor and Other Abuses in Drug Detention Centers in Southern Vietnam (2011)
Human Rights Watch

Open resource
Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Treated with Cruelty: Abuses in the Name of Rehabilitation (2011)
Open Society Foundations

Open resource
Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Treatment or Torture? Applying International Human Rights Standards to Drug Detention Centers (2011) - Richard Elliott, Alison Symington, Rick Lines & Rebecca Schleifer
Open Society Foundations

Open resource
Type of resource: Books and reports

From coercion to cohesion: Treating drug dependence through health care, not punishment (2009)

Open resource