The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform


The answer to the debate?

For countries looking to reform their national drug policy, ‘decriminalisation’ has been the most widely experimented legislative reform.

Decriminalisation is a reform of the law that removes criminal sanctions (such as imprisonment) from a certain act (but administrative sanctions are still permitted, such as fines or therapy sessions). It is important to note the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation, which many journalists and other commentators seem to confuse. Decriminalisation keeps the act within the prohibitionist regime, but instead uses civil penalties.

The UN drug conventions on illicit drugs state that signatory countries must prohibit the cultivation, manufacturing, sale or possession of these substances. National and local experiments with alternative modes of regulation are significantly constrained. However, there is a certain amount of ‘room for manoeuvre’[1], as the reform experiments in Portugal, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and various other countries have demonstrated.

In spite of this, signatory countries are not clearly permitted to implement the decriminalisation of possession and consumption of covered illicit substances or create a regime for the production and sale of these drugs within a regulated, domestic market.

It is important to closely examine the similarities and differences between the case studies of those countries that have decriminalised one or more drugs. Decriminalisation is a major reform that can offer positive outcomes. Evidence is vital within the discussion over drug reform, but many public debates are based on speculation instead.

Various studies have shown that the removal of criminal penalties has resulted in slight, but positive impacts within the examples of Australia, Italy, United States and the Netherlands [2]. Decriminalisation reduces the burden on the criminal justice system and enables the police to pursue those higher up the chain, including large scale traffickers. Removing criminal penalties alone has “little or no impact on the prevalence of drug use or drug-related harms.”[3]

Portugal, which decriminalised drugs in 2001, offers a particularly important case study on the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal consumption, shifting the emphasis from criminal punishment to an administrative offence. Of major importance is that the reform moved the focus from a criminalising response to a health-oriented one (including refer users to treatment).

According to a major report: the Portuguese decriminalised experienced:

“- small increases in reported illicit drug use amongst adults;

- reduced illicit drug use among problematic drug users and adolescents, at least since 2003;

- reduced burden of drug offenders on the criminal justice system;

- increased uptake of drug treatment;

- reduction in opiate-related deaths and infectious diseases;

- increases in the amounts of drugs seized by the authorities;

- reductions in the retail prices of drugs.”[3]

Such evidence shows that decriminalisation, whilst not a magic fix, may offer vital improvements within the discussion on drug policy reform.




[1] Dorn, N and Jamieson, A. (2001), The full report of a comparative legal research into drug laws of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden and their relations to international drug conventions , London: DrugScope

[2] MacCoun, R. and Reuter, P. (2001), Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[3] Hughes, C. E. and Stevens, A. (2010), ‘What can we learn from the Portuguese decriminalization of illicit drugs?’, British Journal of Criminology, 50, 999-1022