Worldwide Executions for Drugs More Than Doubled in 2022

    Worldwide executions for drug convictions have surged, more than doubling in 2022 compared with 2021. The sharp rise follows two years when executions were slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. These executions are concentrated in a relatively small number of countries. But silence from other governments and international bodies helps to perpetuate the practice.

    A new report by Harm Reduction International (HRI) details the disturbing trends. The nonprofit started tracking global drug executions in 2007. The worst year recorded was 2015, when it counted 755 people put to death for drug convictions. The numbers dropped dramatically for a few years, going under 100 by 2018, only to rise again.

    By December 2022, HRI counted 285 people executed for drug convictions that year.

    Then in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, such executions fell to the lowest figure recorded, at 30. A political reform in Saudi Arabia and civil legal resistance in Singapore also helped to cut the number that year.

    But progress was short-lived. In 2021, the executions surged again, to 131. And that trend continued into 2022. By December 2022, HRI counted 285 people executed for drug convictions that year.

    HRI estimates that at least six countries, all in Asia, conducted executions for drug convictions in 2022: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Singapore, China, North Korea and Vietnam. As in past years, we don’t know the exact number because some governments keep this information secret.

    Confirmed death sentences for drugs are also trending upwards, with at least 303 such sentences given in 18 countries in 2022.  

    The United States is one of 35 countries that still have the death penalty on their books for certain drug charges, in what HRI notes is “a violation of international law.” The US did not execute or sentence anyone to death for a drug conviction in 2022. But former President Donald Trump—now running for a second term amid multiple criminal and civil investigations—has previously called on Congress to pass a law allowing the death penalty for anyone selling fentanyl.

    Here are the situations in some of the countries that inflict the most of these executions, based on the HRI report.



    Although China keeps these executions highly secret, HRI confirmed several for drugs, based on online sources. The organization estimates that dozens, if not hundreds, actually took place. 

    The country’s Supreme Court describes drugs as “the real demon that destroys human nature.” In past years, Amnesty International has estimated that China may carry out thousands of executions for drugs annually. Drug convictions are the leading source of death sentences in China. About half of drug cases in court end in a death sentence, as Chinese law criminalizes smuggling, selling, transporting and manufacturing.


    Saudi Arabia

    In 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced a ban on all executions for drugs, and there were no recorded executions in 2021.

    But we knew that the prince could change the policy at any moment—and even though no executions were carried out in 2021, death sentences were still handed down and people sent to death row.

    Those fears have now been realized. In November 2022, the prince repealed his own policy. Within a couple of months, the country executed 22 people for drugs. About half of those executed were not Saudi nationals, but foreign-born residents, typically convicted of playing only minor roles in the drug trade.



    Singapore also went two years without any drug executions, but for a different reason. In 2020, the highest Court of Appeal overturned a death sentence for drugs on review, an historic moment.

    Despite the government standing firmly behind the death penalty, pressure from civil advocates and attorneys successfully stopped any more executions for drugs—or at least suspended them.

    But their efforts were overruled in March 2022. That year, the country executed 11 people for drug convictions.



    Iran also saw limited progress in recent years, after it reformed its drug laws in 2017 to limit use the death penalty for drugs. But in 2021 drug executions spiked again, more than quintupling in one year.

    Based on an independent monitor in Iran, we know that drug executions surged again last year, reaching at least 252. This happened as the country was rocked by widespread protests—and a brutal government crackdown—after the killing of Mahsa Amini, following her arrest by religious authorities.

    Drug convictions accounted for 44 percent of all executions carried out in Iran in 2022. And the punishment is being weaponized against the country’s Baluchi ethnic minority group. Baluchi people comprise just 2 percent of Iran’s population, but were the victims of 40 percent of all executions for drug convictions in 2022.


    International Silence

    HRI’s report frames the silence of other nations and political organizations on this practice as facilitating the killings. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has conspicuously failed to take a public stance on executions for drugs.

    The European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) explained how the global events of 2022 helped insulate the Saudi government from criticism for its human rights abuses. “At the start of 2022, amid energy crises, global political upheavals, and the Ukraine war, the ‘diplomatic embargo’ on Saudi Arabia was broken,” it stated in a 2022 report, and “… human rights issues took a back seat to issues of energy and the economy.”  

    Since then, visits by French President Emmanuel Macron, President Biden and other world leaders have given Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman an air of legitimacy, and “These visits represent the tip of the iceberg of countries’ normalization of Saudi violations,” ESOHR stated.

    Pakistan could become the first country in 15 years to abolish the death penalty for drugs.

    Amid the tragedy and injustice of continuing worldwide executions for drugs, there are some isolated hopeful developments. In Pakistan, a country that has death penalty for drugs on its books but has not executed anyone in recent years, lawmakers have introduced a bill that would abolish it, albeit replacing it with life imprisonment. The bill has already been passed by the lower National Assembly, and must pass the Senate and President’s desk before being signed into law.

    Pakistan could therefore become the first country in 15 years to abolish the death penalty for drugs.

    “While its practical effects are undetermined (it is unclear whether anyone has a final capital conviction for a drug crime in the country),” HRI’s report states, “its symbolic significance and its potential influence both on Pakistan’s international standing, and on the use of the death penalty for drug offences in the region and beyond, should not be underestimated.”



    Image via the Harm Reduction International report

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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