International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy

4. Right to social security

Everyone has the right to social security, including social insurance. This right applies equally to all without discrimination, including people who use drugs, people dependent on illicit drug economies, people in prisons and other places of detention or closed settings, and people who have been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of drug-related offences.

In accordance with this right, States should:

i. Take steps, to the maximum of available resources, to establish and progressively expand comprehensive social security systems that equally guarantee legal entitlements – including universal access to health care, housing, education, and basic income security – to the aforementioned individuals and groups, while also ensuring that particularly marginalised or vulnerable groups can effectively exercise and realise these human rights on an equal basis with others.

ii. Prevent and remedy the denial of social assistance to persons on the basis of drug dependence, which is impermissible discrimination.

iii. If in a position to assist other States, facilitate the realisation of the right to social security and related entitlements, including through the provision of economic and technical assistance.


The right to social security, including social insurance, is enshrined in numerous international and regional treaties.291 It includes the right not to be subject to arbitrary and unreasonable restrictions of existing social security coverage and the right to equal enjoyment of adequate protection from social risks and contingencies.292

Recognising the importance of social security in preventing and reducing poverty and social exclusion, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights emphasises States’ obligations to ensure that social security systems cover everybody, but especially ‘those individuals and groups who traditionally face difficulties in exercising this right, in particular women, the unemployed … minority groups … prisoners and detainees’.293 Numerous human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, recommend the establishment of social protection floors comprising a set of basic social security guarantees in cash and in kind, in line with a previous recommendation of the International Labour Organization.294 The implementation of nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, is also among the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.295

In some jurisdictions, identification as a person who uses drugs or who has been in detention or holds a conviction for a drug-related offence poses considerable obstacles to obtaining social security and other government benefits.296 However, as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has explained, the right to social security requires that qualifying conditions for benefits be reasonable, proportionate, and transparent and that the withdrawal, reduction, or suspension of benefits be circumscribed, based on reasonable grounds, subject to due process and provided for in national law.297 The Committee has expressed concern that conditioning welfare benefits on drug testing is neither reasonable nor proportionate, lacks a credible evidence base, may deepen stigma, and may drive people who use drugs away from treatment.298 The Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has affirmed that conditioning welfare benefits on drug testing is neither reasonable nor proportionate.299

The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent has raised concern about racial bias in the application of criminal justice policies enacted as part of drug control efforts, resulting in longer prison sentences and higher conviction rates, and the deep collateral damage on people of African descent. People with low-level, non-violent criminal records can be denied access to social housing, safety net programmes, and welfare assistance. Those with felony drug records are fully or partially excluded from food assistance in some jurisdictions.300