To criminalise or not criminalise people who use drugs: that is the question

In Kenya, in a tiny holding cell at a police post reeking of urine, vomit and human waste, Moha is crouched in one corner.

In Kenya, in a tiny holding cell at a police post reeking of urine, vomit and human waste, Moha is crouched in one corner. He is handcuffed and in a world of his own – the other occupants in the tiny cell don’t want to go near him.

Moha is drenched in sweat and seems nervous and restless as he talks incoherently. He has been in the cell for at least two days and he has five more to go. He was brought in by his family who want him to stop injecting drugs. They believe a few days at the police post will “make him outgrow his bad habit”. But are they right? Is this the way to go to help injecting drug users?

On 26 June, as Moha was dealing with his withdrawal symptoms, activists in 26 cities around the world were taking part in the ‘Support. Don’t Punish’ campaign to coincide with the United Nations’ International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

Protest against the war on drugs

In Nairobi and  Mombasa, activists led by the Kenya AIDS NGOs Consortium (KANCO) took to the streets in solidarity with others in London, Paris, Dodoma, Seville, Mexico City, Mostar and Oslo among other cities in an historic day of action to raise awareness of the harms caused by the ‘war on drugs’.

This ‘war’ has led to harsh penalties and the mass imprisonment of people who use drugs, yet has failed to reduce drug use itself or to stifle a multi-billion illicit drug market. The criminalisation of people who use drugs leads to a vicious cycle of discrimination, inaccessibility to health care services, and high risk behaviors for HIV and Hepatitis C transmission, which affects whole communities.

Of the 16 million people who inject drugs worldwide, around three million are living with HIV and two-thirds are living with hepatitis C. The Support, Don’t Punish campaign advocates for change in laws and policies which impede access to harm reduction interventions for people who use drugs. It has already gathered momentum with 107 organisations endorsing the campaign so far. High-profile supporters include the executive director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibé and British business magnate Richard Branson.

Funding needs

As well as raising awareness about the need to stop criminalising people who use drugs, the campaign is highlighting the need for greater funding for essential health and support services for people who use drugs.

KANCO’s executive director Allan Ragi said at the campaign event: “We will continue to work with the government to scale up and improve the quality of services needed by drug users. I also urge parents to support and understand their children who are using drugs because drug use is a medical condition affecting the mind and therefore people should not be punished but counseled and rehabilitated.”

Reverend Dr Kogo, the board director of the National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse, was also at the event and asked young people to think about their future and those of their families before getting into drug use. He said: “Drug barons and their families do not use drugs yet they bring drugs which are sold to Kenyan youths who are indirectly supporting the barons to live lavish lifestyles while the users continue to live in poverty and dependency. I would ask young people to stop using drugs as they affect their mind and health.”

In Kenya, by 2012, approximately 18,000 people were reported to be injecting drugs. The problem is not going to disappear any time soon and a new approach is needed if people like Moha are to be given the chance of a better future.

Find out more about Support. Don’t Punish.


  • comment-avatar
    Sylvia Ayon 5 years

    Far many gains to harm reduction will be achieved when we stop marginilising drug users and embrace them as equal partners when seeking for health services and human rights….support dont punish drugs users. We must addresss all punitive policy that deny drug users life saving quality health services