International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy

4.3 Rights to enjoy culture and to profess and practise religion

Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalise their cultural traditions and customs and to manifest, practise, develop, and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs, and ceremonies. This includes the right to use and cultivate plants and plant-based substances that have psychoactive effects, where these are part of their cultural, spiritual, or religious practices.
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, cultivate, use, and protect and conserve medicinal and other plants and seeds that form a part of their cultural or ethnic identity or part of their spiritual or religious traditions, customs, and ceremonies. This includes plants that have psychoactive effects.

In accordance with these rights, States should:

i. Refrain from interfering with indigenous peoples’ exercise of their cultural, spiritual, and religious practices, including those involving plants that have psychoactive effects.

ii. Adopt appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures to ensure that drug control efforts do not interfere with indigenous peoples’ rights to enjoy their culture and to practise their religion, including with members separated by international borders.

iii. Take measures to protect indigenous communities from actions by private companies and third parties that deny indigenous people their traditional sources of nutrition, medicines, livelihoods, and ceremonies, including those involving plants that have psychoactive effects.

In addition, States should:

iv. Consider exemptions within drug legislation allowing indigenous peoples to use controlled psychoactive substances for traditional, cultural, and religious purposes.


The right of everyone to take part in cultural life is enshrined in numerous international instruments.825 The Human Rights Committee has concluded that a member of a minority shall not be denied the right to enjoy their culture and that measures whose impact amounts to a denial of this right are incompatible with obligations to ensure the right to enjoy one’s own culture.826 Other international and regional instruments further protect the right to manifest a religion or belief,827 specifically providing for the protection of the rights of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities, in community with other members of their group, to profess and practise their religion.828 The International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention similarly requires States to protect ‘the social, cultural, religious and spiritual values and practices’ of indigenous peoples and the integrity of these practices.829 The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples further recognises indigenous peoples’ rights to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants,830 and the right to ‘maintain and develop contacts, relations and cooperation, including activities for spiritual, cultural, political, economic and social purposes, with their own members as well as other peoples across borders’.831

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has recommended that States ‘[p]rotect the rights of indigenous peoples to produce crops and plants that they have traditionally grown for their religious, medicinal and customary purposes and ensure that such production is not criminalized’.832 The Working Group also recommends that States refrain from taking ‘punitive action against subsistence and small-scale farmers who produce illicit crops’ and instead ‘work with them to develop income from alternative agricultural crops and increase government services in their communities’.833

According to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, indigenous peoples ‘have the right to act collectively to ensure respect for their right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines’.834 The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes similar protections.835 The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has expressed general concern about the lack of adequate protection for and information on the intellectual property rights and cultural heritage rights of indigenous peoples and recommends that State legislation include clear, precise norms for the effective protection of such rights.836 It further recommends that States take measures to prevent third parties from interfering in the exercise of these rights, including by preventing the appropriation and commodification of indigenous knowledge and traditional medicine.837

Prohibitions on the production of certain plants, such as coca and opium poppy, should not deprive indigenous peoples of the right to cultivate and use plants subject to international control if they are essential elements that contribute to their rights to enjoy their traditional culture and to profess and practise their religion, and therefore also to the general health and well-being of their communities.838 The right of indigenous people to cultivate and use coca as a manifestation of their cultural identity has been recognised in national constitutions,839 legislation,840 and jurisprudence. For example, Colombia’s Constitutional Court has recognised the rights of indigenous peoples to cultivate and use coca for traditional practices, as required by the country’s international law commitments.841 Notwithstanding the above, most States that have such legal protections also criminalise the possession and cultivation of coca for personal use.842

Even when certain substances are not under international control, indigenous people have faced criminal sanctions. For example, despite the statutory exemption from the prohibition on consuming peyote in religious ceremonies in the United States since 1994,843 the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples in 2012 referred to allegations by the Native American Church of North America that peyote users and harvesters were facing ‘wrongful arrest, confiscation, prejudicial treatment in family custody cases, and discrimination in employment’.844

Relationship to the UN drug control conventions

Certain provisions of the drug control conventions may conflict with specific rights of indigenous peoples to enjoy their culture and to profess and practise their religion. For example, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs requires that States abolish a range of traditional practices, including traditional uses of coca leaves, the quasi-medical use of opium, and traditional and religious uses of cannabis,845 and establishes the general obligation to limit the permissible use of controlled substances strictly to medical and scientific purposes.846 However, it also makes this general obligation ‘subject to the provisions of this Convention’,847 which therefore at least permits flexibility to avoid criminalising indigenous individuals for their possession, purchase, or cultivation for personal consumption, although it also leaves other activities involving the use of substances for traditional purposes subject to criminal sanction.

The 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances does allow for ‘traditional licit uses’. However, it also states that any measures taken by States in relation to such substances may not be ‘less stringent’ than required under the 1961 Single Convention,848 which requires States to destroy coca bushes, opium poppies, and cannabis plants ‘if illegally cultivated’.849 There is, therefore, an apparent conflict between contemporary indigenous rights standards and the UN drug control conventions that requires close attention.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has called for the amendment or repeal of those portions of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs regarding coca leaf chewing that are inconsistent with the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain their traditional health and cultural practices.850 Bolivia withdrew from and then re-acceded to the treaty with a reservation protecting the country’s right to permit traditional coca leaf chewing, the consumption and use of coca leaf for cultural and medicinal purposes, and the cultivation, trade, and possession of coca to the extent necessary for these uses.851