Home > The death penalty for drug offences: global overview 2017.

Sander, Gen (2018) The death penalty for drug offences: global overview 2017. London: Harm Reduction International.

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This is the tenth year that Harm Reduction International (HRI) has been working on the death penalty for drug offences and, regrettably, prohibitionist and punitive approaches to drugs continue to result in the execution of hundreds of people for non-violent drug offences every year. The majority of those sentenced to death and executed are low level couriers who often experience overlapping and intersecting forms of vulnerability, discrimination and exclusion and who are often subjected to forced confessions and unfair trials. Not only do these executions continue to fail to achieve any reduction in drug use and trafficking, they are also a clear violation of fundamental human rights under international law.

Our global overview series monitors the death penalty for drugs in law and practice worldwide, and also considers critical developments on the issue. Since being launched in 2007, Harm Reduction International's death penalty work has been the leading global resource on the issue of the death penalty for drug offences.


Among the key findings from the 2017 global overview report:

  • At least 33 countries and territories prescribe the death penalty for drug offences in law.
  • At least nine countries still have the death penalty for drug offences as a mandatory sanction, although three of these (Brunei Darussalam, Laos and Myanmar) are abolitionist in practice. Malaysia removed the mandatory sentence for drug offences in November 2017.
  • Between January 2015 and December 2017, at least 1,320 people are known to have been executed for drug-related offences - 718 in 2015; 325 in 2016; and 280 in 2017. These estimates do not include China, as reliable figures continue to be unavailable for the country.
  • Taking China out of the equation due to a lack of data, Iran has been the world’s top executioner for drug offences by far, with at least 1,176 executions carried out since January 2015. That amounts to nearly 90% of all known drug-related executions during that period.
  • Between 2015 and 2017, executions for drug offences took place in at least five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Singapore. 

The report also reveals a critical tension: the situation is at once improving and deteriorating. On the one hand, recent positive developments provide a glimmer of hope that the tide could finally be shifting. At the national level, executions for drug offences have been steadily declining in High Application States since 2015, and important legal and policy changes have taken place in several countries, including Iran, Thailand and Malaysia.


At the international level, political support for the abolition of the death penalty for drug offences is also gaining considerable momentum. The 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs failed to reach consensus on the death penalty for drug offences, but 73 countries expressed strong support for abolition, proving that the issue is firmly on the radar of the global community.


On the other hand, these signs of progress are being overshadowed by the surge in extrajudicial executions of people accused of using or selling drugs in the Philippines. Worrying signs that Indonesia may be adopting a similar violent response, and the explicit support for President Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ expressed by other countries in the region and beyond, raise serious concerns about whether we are seeing a new trend which could normalise the killing of people for drugs and undo years of steady progress.

Item Type
Publication Type
International, Report
Drug Type
All substances, Opioid
Intervention Type
Harm reduction, Crime prevention
March 2018
33 p.
Harm Reduction International
Place of Publication
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