Blog Post

Drug War Fuels Global Lack of Access to Essential Medicines

Suchitra Rajagopalan

Every individual has a fundamental right to health, regardless of age, race, gender, income, or nationality. This important human right is intimately connected to our understanding of a life in dignity because it is in good health that individuals can reach their full potential.

One of my closest friends back home in India met with a terrible car accident last year.  His recovery has been defined by months and months of pain. Sustaining traumatic injuries to his hip and leg, one would imagine that he’d be given the strongest pain medication possible. However, despite having undergone multiple surgeries, he was only given morphine a handful of times in the first year of his recovery. Oral morphine, prescribed in many countries, wasn’t given to him until many months after his accident.

It is unfair and unjust that my friend in New Delhi who gets into an accident cannot access the medication he requires, but if a friend in New York or Paris were in one, they would probably get the medication with ease.

The UN is based on the primary tenet that every individual has a set of inalienable rights; drug laws cannot override those rights. For several decades, international drug control has been characterized by an overwhelming focus on suppression and punishment, ignoring the central concern of the UN drug convention – the health and welfare of mankind. The repressive stance taken by the UN on drugs has had a damaging impact on human rights, including the right to health.

For those suffering from extreme physical pain, morphine is indispensable; it’s cheap and highly effective in providing relief and has accordingly been designated an ‘essential medicine’ by the World Health Organization. It is important to understand the impact severe pain can have on a patient; not only is it physically unbearable, but it can affect a person’s ability to eat, sleep, and interact with others. It also greatly increases likelihood of developing depression and anxiety, and can even influence the course of the patient’s illness. Pain relief is thus a critical component of the right to health.

Among the millions of drug war victims worldwide are 5.5 million cancer patients, 1 million people with end stage AIDS, women in labor, people recovering from surgery, and accident victims, who suffer from moderate to severe pain, but cannot access the pain relief medication they need, if they live in countries with inadequate access to essential medicines.

While the War on Drugs may have started in the U.S., it is mostly patients in the developing world that are paying the price. 92% of the world’s morphine is consumed by 17% of the world’s population, with use concentrated mainly in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. The international psychosis and hysteria created by the drug war has pushed governments to introduce rules and regulations for access to morphine and other illicit pain relief drugs that go far beyond what the UN conventions require, thereby ignoring their medical need and importance.

The issue finally got some attention at the recent UN Session on Drugs and many countries, including India, are trying to change policies at the national and international level. However, real change will require a shift away from a punitive approach towards one emphasizing health and human rights.

How much pain you have to suffer shouldn’t be determined by where you live, and it is unacceptable that we let stigma and misguided fears of addiction get in the way of allowing patients to realize their right to health.

For more information, check out the Drug Policy Alliance's fact sheet: The Global Drug War: Fueling Lack of Access to Essential Medicines

Suchitra Rajagopalan is pursuing her Bachelor of Laws at the University of Mumbai and is a former intern of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Photo by Sage Ross from Wikimedia Commons

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