The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2018

Download a PDF of the full report here

View interactive map and view legislation table here.

View report briefing here. (Further thematic briefings, below)

The death penalty for drug offences is a clear violation of international human rights law. Numerous international authorities and legal scholars have reaffirmed this point, including the UN Human Rights Committee as recently as 2018.

Since Harm Reduction International began monitoring the use of this abhorrent practice in 2007, annual implementation of 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). Notably, 2018 figures show a significant downward trend, with known executions falling below 100 globally.

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 re- implementation 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.

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. 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.

The death penalty for drug offences in 2018: a snapshot

  • 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).
  • Over 7,000 people are currently on death row for drug offences globally.
  • At least 13 countries sentenced a minimum of 149 people to death for non-violent drug offences in 2018. A significant proportion of those sentenced are foreign nationals.

Death penalty thematic briefings

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GO2018 death row conditions briefingThe Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Conditions of detention on death row

Summary of the major findings from our Global Overview 2018 on death row figures and conditions. 

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Death penalty and women briefingThe Death Penalty for Drug Offences: The Impact on Women

Read our joint briefing with Oxford University to find out more about the acute impact of the death penalty for drug offences on women.

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Death penalty and foreign nationals briefingThe Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Foreign Nationals

Read our joint briefing with Oxford University to find out more about how the death penalty for drug offences disproportionately impacts foreign nationals in many countries. 

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