The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

New Approaches

The War on Drugs has been a costly failure. It empowers criminal cartels, destroys lives, infringes civil rights, and fails to reduce drug use or availability. It is time to consider alternatives to the current criminalising approach to drug control.

About 20 countries around the world have experimented with more liberal approaches involving decriminalisation of personal use and government supply of heroin to dependent users. Many of these policies reflect a shift from drug use being considered a criminal matter, to it being considered a public health issue. The war on drugs has led to repeated demands from academics and economists (including 3 Nobel Prize winners) to change the current flawed strategy that ignores the elementary laws of supply and demand.

This section explores alternatives to the current prohibitionist regimes. The Netherlands has instituted de facto legalisation of ‘soft drugs’, where possession and use of small quantities is generally ignored, despite still officially being misdemeanours punishable by fine.

 In July 2001, Portugal became the first European country to fully decriminalise all drugs, a move that did not lead to major increases of drug use, but, rather, to reductions in drug-abuse and drug-related harms [1].

Over a decade on, the reform has attracted considerable international attention. It has also been the subject of a number of divergent accounts on its impacts, with some commentators offering diametrically opposed policy conclusions from their evidence-informed analyses [2].

Given that evidence based reports have a huge potential for use in promoting or blocking drug law reform in Portugal and elsewhere, the selective uses of data and divergent conclusions are perhaps to be expected. Yet, while we found evidence that the misinterpretation of evidence may garner national or international support and contribute to the uptake of misconceptions and erroneous accounts (that may align with core beliefs), we contend that particularly for proponents of reform, that is, those challenging the status quo, deliberate misinterpretation of evidence is a high risk game.

Uruguay is one of the few countries that never criminalised personal drug-use. Argentina and Brazil have partially decriminalised the possession of drugs for personal use.


 [1] Hughes, C., & Stevens, A. (2010). What can we learn from the Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs?  British Journal of Criminology, 50(6), 999-1022.

[2] A resounding success or a disastrous failure: Re-examining the interpretation of evidence on the Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs. Drug and Alcohol Review 2012