Glossary of Terms - Drug Decriminalisation Across the World

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The definitions included in this glossary have been developed by Release, the International Drug Policy Consortium and Harm Reduction International.

Drugs - is a shorthand reference for substances scheduled under the international drug control treaties or, if not subject to international control, are controlled under domestic legal frameworks.

Decriminalisation - is the removal of criminal penalties for an activity. In some legal systems criminal penalties are replaced by civil sanctions and, in others, no penalties are applied. In the context of drug policy, decriminalisation has largely been applied to the possession of drugs for personal use, cultivation of cannabis for personal use, and the sharing of scheduled drugs where there is no financial gain.

De Jure decriminalisation - is where the legal framework has been enshrined in law through either statute or constitutional court decisions.

De facto decriminalisation - is where the selected activity remains a criminal offence in statute but the law is not enforced, this is largely achieved through formal police or prosecutorial guidelines.

Legalisation - is a process by which all drug-related behaviours (use, possession, cultivation, production, trade, etc.) become legal activities. Within this process, governments may choose to adopt administrative laws and policies to regulate drug production, distribution and use, limiting availability and access – this process is known as ‘legal regulation’.

Legal regulation - refers to a model whereby the cultivation, manufacture, transportation and sale of selected drugs are governed by a legal regulatory regime. This regime can include regulations on price, potency, packaging, production, transit, availability, marketing and/or use – all of which are enforced by state agencies.

Threshold quantities - refer to the quantity of drugs that are used to indicate whether an individual is in possession of a scheduled or controlled substance for their personal use, or any other activity that is decriminalised, and as such should not be subject to criminal penalties. When the threshold quantities are binding, there is a strict application of the law and someone caught with amounts higher than the threshold are subject to criminal sanctions for possession or, in some cases, are treated as traffickers. Indicative threshold quantities are used as a guideline for law enforcement agencies. In that case, a person caught above the threshold amount can still benefit from the decriminalised model if there is no evidence of supply. Some jurisdictions do not have threshold quantities, instead preferring to use terms such as ‘small’ or ‘reasonable’ quantity, and the decision as to whether the activity is intended for personal use is made by using other considerations.

Administrative/civil penalties - are penalties that operate outside of the criminal justice system and as such do not result in a criminal record. Examples of administrative penalties can include: fines, confiscation of documents such as passport or drivers licenses, or a referral to treatment.

Suspension of proceedings - is where the proceedings against a person are suspended for a prescribed period. If the individual does not come before the relevant panel within that period of time, no further action is taken. In the case of decriminalisation, this will be an administrative or civil panel.

Harm Reduction - refers to policies, programmes and practices that aim to minimise negative health, social and legal impacts associated with drug use, drug policies and drug laws. Harm reduction is grounded in justice and human rights - it focuses on positive change and on working with people without judgement, coercion, discrimination, or requiring that they stop using drugs as a precondition of support. Harm reduction encompasses a range of health and social services and practices that apply to illicit and licit drugs. These include, but are not limited to, drug consumption rooms, needle and syringe programmes, non-abstinence-based housing and employment initiatives, drug checking, overdose prevention and reversal, psychosocial support, and the provision of information on safer drug use. Approaches such as these are cost-effective, evidence-based and have a positive impact on individual and community health.

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