Executions for drug offenses plummeted worldwide during 2020, according to a new report by the global drug-policy monitor Harm Reduction International (HRI).

Three countries — China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran — carried out 30 confirmed executions for non-violent drug crimes over the course of the year, the group reported in its annual analysis, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2020. The total, the April 7, 2021 report said, was the lowest since HRI began reporting on executions for drug offenses in 2007. Drug-related executions were down 75% from the 116 confirmed drug executions worldwide in 2019 and have declined by a staggering 96% from the 755 confirmed drug executions in 2015.

HRI attributed some of the decline in execution to the COVID-19 pandemic, but said that “political developments played an important role.” Drug executions were down from 84 in 2019 to five in 2020 in Saudi Arabia, after the Kingdom proclaimed a moratorium on the practice. The report noted what it called a “slight” but “significant … decrease in confirmed executions in Iran” from 30 in 2019 to 25 in 2020 following legislative amendments to the nation’s drug laws. For the first time since 2013, HRI said, Singapore did not carry out any drug-related executions.

“It is too early to definitively conclude if this is the beginning of a long-term trend, or the outcome of an exceptional year,” the report said. HRI cautioned that cumulative data on the death penalty for drug offenses “is grossly insufficient, partly due to a lack of information on executions in China and Vietnam.” The organization confirmed that drug executions had taken place in China in 2020 but noted that “both [countries] are reported to routinely execute people for drug offences.”

While executions for drug offenses dramatically declined, HRI reported that death sentences imposed worldwide for non-violent drug crimes and the number of prisoners on death rows worldwide for drug offenses both rose in 2020. Thirty-five countries still authorize the death-penalty for drug offenses and ten imposed death sentences under those laws. HRI confirmed the imposition of at least 213 new death sentences for drug offenses in 2020, a 16% increase. At least 3,000 people are currently on death rows worldwide for drug offenses, HRI said.

HRI Executive Director Naomi Burke-Shyne called the continued use of the death penalty for drug offenses “amidst a global pandemic … abhorrent and emblematic of an overly punitive approach to drug control.” “Too many countries remain reluctant to move away from capital punishment and their false belief that the death penalty deters drug offences,” she said.

Pointing to China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam, HRI sharply criticized the use of secrecy to conceal information about the extent to which “high application” countries were employing capital punishment for drug offenses. “It is essential to note that there remains a pervasive and systemic lack of transparency around the death penalty, which is in violation of clear international standards,” the report said. That problem “was exacerbated in 2020,” HRI said, when the pandemic, restrictions on travel, and “the shrinking of civil society space” combined to make the collection of information and independent monitoring of death-penalty practices “even more challenging than in previous years.”

The report also noted widespread fair trial abuses as countries denied defendants confidential communications with lawyers and in-person trials during the pandemic. Lacking the infrastructure for virtual meetings, some defendants held in Indonesian detention centers had to speak with their lawyers in the presence of prison guards using the guards’ personal cellphones. At least 17 defendants in Indonesia and one in Singapore were sentenced to death in trials conducted over Zoom or other virtual platforms. “[A]dministering the death penalty requires a complicated, complex and (to a degree) expensive machinery,” the report said. The “already problematic functioning” of capital drug trials, the report concluded, “was further challenged by the pandemic.”

Harm Reduction International is an international non-governmental organization engaged in research and advocacy on the health, social, and legal effects of drug use and drug policy. It holds Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.


Report, The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: Global Overview 2020, Harm Reduction International, April 7, 2021; Max Daly, Drug Smugglers Are Being Sentenced to Death via Zoom, Vice News, April 7, 2021; Alexander Lekhtman, World Executions for Drug Charges Fell Sharply Amid COVID. It’s Likely Temporary., Filter Magazine, April 72021.