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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

The death penalty for drug offences is less common

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2018 figures show a welcome drop in the number of people executed for drug offences, although at least 91 people met this fate.

A global overview

Harm Reduction International has long been the lead agency researching and publishing information about the death penalty for drug offences, monitoring this abhorrent practice since 2007.

Over the last eleven years, HRI has found that  the death penalty for drug offences has fluctuated markedly.
Over 4,000 people were executed globally for these offences between 2008 and 2018, with executions hitting a peak above 750 in 2015 (excluding China and Vietnam, where these figures are a state secret).

The key findings from its just published (26 February 2019) 2018 Global Overview report are, fortunately , more positive than in many other years:

  • 2018 figures show a significant downward trend, with known executions falling below 100 globally.
  • Drug offences are punishable by death in at least 35 countries and territories worldwide.
  • The total number of confirmed executions for drug offences (excluding China, including very limited data from Vietnam) between 2008 and 2018 is 4,366 (of which 3,975 were in Iran alone).
  • Only four of these countries executed individuals for drug offences in 2018 (China, Iran, Singapore and Saudi Arabia). It is likely that Vietnam carried out drug-related executions, but because of state secrecy it is not possible to confirm this.
  • At least 91 people were executed for drug offences in 2018 (excluding China and Vietnam).
  • This represents a 68.5% decrease from 2017, a fall primarily driven by developments in Iran, where
    executions for drug offences fell 90% (from 221 in 2017 to 23 in 2018).
  • Saudi Arabia was responsible for the most confirmed drug-related executions in 2018 (at least 59).
  • Singapore executed nine people in 2018 (one more than 2017), all of them for drug offences.
  • Over 7,000 people are currently on death row for drug offences globally.

Key developments

  • Iran, among the most prolific executioners for drug offences, passed reforms in 2017 which resulted in a drastic reduction in the implementation of the death penalty. 
  • After a bloody stretch from 2015-2016, there were no executions (for any offence) carried out in Indonesia for a second consecutive year, and Malaysia – once among the most resolute supporters of the death penalty, including for drug offences – committed to total abolition of the death penalty in 2018.

Still major concerns

Yet, while executions are falling, thousands of people remain on death row for drug offences. A number of these people are at the lowest levels of the drug trade, socio-economically vulnerable, are tried without due process and/or have inadequate legal representation. In short, it appears that the death penalty for drug offences is primarily reserved for the most marginalised in society.

Other events in 2018 show that for every progressive step, there is a regressive counter-narrative. In Bangladesh
and Sri Lanka, populist rhetoric against the ‘threat’ of the ‘drugs menace’ has seen leaders push for expansion or reimplementation of the death penalty, while governments in the Philippines and United States (among others) pointed to capital punishment as an essential tool to confront drug trafficking or public health emergencies.

There is no evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to the drug trade – in fact, according to available estimates, drug markets continue to thrive around the world, despite drug laws in almost every country being grounded in a punitive approach. The response to drug use and the drug trade remains heavily politicised, frequently resulting in a rejection of evidence, even when brutal crackdowns are shown to inflict countless harms and rights violations on society.

In December 2018, a record 120 countries voted in favour of the Resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, and since 2008 the number of abolitionist countries crept up from 92 to 106 in 2017.3 This is a positive trend, but when countered by inflammatory political rhetoric, progress is fragile at best. Governments must ground their drug laws in rights, dignity and
evidence, and do away with the death penalty once and for all.

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