Advocacy Against Racism and Decolonising Drug Policy

The war on drugs has failed in its stated goal of reducing drug use and sale, and has instead has resulted in a devastating trail of trauma, pain and suffering for families and communities, with communities of colour facing the harshest impact.

Globally, Black, Brown and Indigenous people are disproportionately targeted for drug law enforcement and face discrimination across the criminal system. They face higher rates of arrest, prosecution and incarceration for drug offences, despite similar rates of drug use and selling across races.

The war on drugs has provided the architecture within which racist and colonialist laws, policies and practices can operate.  It must be replaced by strategies grounded in science, health, and human rights.

Our work to decolonise drug policy seeks to raise awareness of the racism and colonialism underlying international drug control  and its impact on the  health and human rights of individuals and communities, in order to begin to dismantle these destructive policies.

Racism and Harm Reduction

Overarching structural problems negatively affect access to health and harm reduction services. Racism and discrimination against Indigenous, Black and Brown people results in low household incomes, unemployment, food insecurity, poor housing and lower levels of education. This, in turn, results in worse health outcomes for these communities and in people from these communities disengaging or actively avoiding health services.

In the United States:

  • People of colour, and most acutely Black people, are discriminated against at every stage of the judicial process: policing, pre-trial, sentencing, parole and post-incarceration.
  • People of colour are not only incarcerated more often, but also for longer sentences. Almost half of all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences are given to Hispanic people, and almost one third are given to Black people.
  • As a result of racial disparities in policing and sentencing, Black men are incarcerated at five times the rate of white men.

See the section on race, incarceration and drug policy in the United States in our Global State of Harm Reduction 2020 report.

In Australia and New Zealand:

  • Structural inequalities negatively impact the health of Indigenous people.
  • This inequality has persisted since the arrival of European settlers and the beginning of colonialism, with newly imposed health care systems focusing primarily to serve those of European descent.
  • In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represented 28 percent of the prison population in 2019, while accounting for 3.3% of the general population. In New Zealand, Māori people comprised 52 percent of the prison population, but only 16.5 percent of the general population. This negatively impacts their health.
  • Māori people consistently experience barriers when accessing health services, from discriminatory behaviour and inadequate information provision to practical barriers like costs and travel challenges, resulting in Māori people disengaging or actively avoiding health services.

See the section on health inequalities among Indigenous people in Oceania in our Global State of Harm Reduction 2020 report

Webinar series

Decolonising Drug Policy

Along with our international partners, we are holding a series of discussions on the global war on drugs and how we can decolonise drug policy.

Dismantling racism and colonialism through drug policy reform

Wednesday, 26 May 2021, 13:00 GMT+1 
Watch the recording of the webinar here: (Access Passcode: &J6ndG7*) 

The war on drugs and the denial of Indigenous rights
Monday, 09 August 2021, 13:00 GMT+1
Register at

British policing, the war on drugs and the everyday impacts of colonialism
Wednesday, 08 September 2021, 13:00 GMT+1
Register at

American exceptionalism: Why the role of the US in global drug policy must change
Wednesday, 10 November 2021, 13:00 GMT
Register at

Related Articles

UN Highlights Role of Drug War in Racist Policing by Naomi Burke-Shyne and Ajeng Larasati

We Must Divest From the Failed Drug War Locally, Nationally and Globally by Colleen Daniels and Suchitra Rajagopalan

To Decolonize Drugs, Start With Prohibition’s Settler Origins by Umme Hoque

Expert Voices Assess Decades of Racist and Colonialist Drug Policies by Benito Diaz

Racism and Policing are Global Problems. Drug Control is a Vehicle by Naomi Burke-Shyne and Colleen Daniels

The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Foreign Nationals by Carolyn Hoyle and Giada Girelli

Submission to the Runnymede Trust: CERD 2021 Call for Evidence by HRI and Release

Submission to OHCHR on the protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people of African descent by HRI and Release

Global State of Harm Reduction 2020 - Full Report

Dismantling Racism and Colonialism Through Drug Policy Reform

Decolonising Drug Policy: The War on Drugs and Denial of Indigenous Rights

© 2023 Harm Reduction International.

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