Release's new drug decriminalisation report: an overview

Release launched a new report called ‘A Quiet Revolution: drug Decriminalisation policies in practice across the globe’ as part of the campaign ‘Drugs: It’s time for Better Laws’, which started in June of 2011. The aim of the report is to demonstrate that the current drug policy model applied globally fails to address the drug problem and that the criminalisation of people who use drugs only creates harm to the individual and society.

The report summarises the drug policies of the countries that have attempted to apply the decriminalisation policy model in a global level, focusing on available research and existing evidence. The purpose of this research and summary is to show that the decriminalisation model adopted in many countries has little impact on drug prevalence within a given society.

The report highlights that in the past 10 years there has been a significant turn towards decriminalisation policies following the recognition of the failures of the criminalisation model from the part of many countries. The fact that the decriminalisation paradigm is on its way unfortunately does not necessarily mean that the forms of its applications are equally effective. There are many different decriminalisation models and some of them are particularly distorted. Some countries apply a ‘de jure model’ (one model defined by law) while others de-prioritise the policing of drug possession through de facto decriminalisation. The recent decriminalisation trend has been spread out to many different countries as disparate as Armenia, Chile, Belgium and Mexico. The number of countries with a formal decriminalisation policy is estimated to be between 25 and 30, always depending on the definitions used.

Before describing the decriminalisation policies in different countries, the report stresses the different variables that define the different models of decriminalisation. These are the threshold quantities, the types of administrative penalties, the role of the judiciary and the police, the role of harm reduction programs and medical interventions, a country’s capacity to accurately measure the statistics and available data on drug use, the different implementation challenges (to which degree the law is followed and interpreted by the police and authorities) and finally the various social, cultural, economic and religious factors that impact on the levels of drug use in each country.

The different decriminalisation policies are examined in detail. Here is a summary of the main elements of different existing drug policy models in relation to the decriminalisation approach, applied in the countries described in the report:

Argentina: The debate over legislative and regulatory drug policy changes is still ongoing. However in 2009, the Argentina’s Supreme Court announced its ‘Arriola Decision’, according to which criminalisation of drug possession for personal use was for the first time dismissed as ‘unconstitutional’. This decision has at least opened the way for a more effective drug policy turn towards decriminalisation.

Armenia: Drug policies have been very strict from 1990 to 2008, a year when a policy shift took place, according to which possession of small quantities of illegal drugs for personal use started facing only administrative liability.

Australia: Australia is a country with an early adoption of decriminalisation policies- some Australian states have decriminalised cannabis 25 years ago.  There are different decriminalisation models that result in different outcomes, many of which affect people’s lives. However, it has been shown that decriminalisation has not caused an increase in cannabis consumption, as many opponents tend to think.

Belgium: In 2003, a legal distinction was made between possession of cannabis for personal use and other types of drug offences, creating a civil penalty system. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), as of 2008, the prevalence of cannabis use in the UK was approximately 114 per cent higher than in Belgium.

Brazil: Possession of drugs for personal use was depenalised in 2006 as part of major revisions to Brazil’s drug laws.

Chile: Chile is currently assessing the possibility of changes in drug laws, including drug reclassification and full decriminalisation. Since 2007, people caught with drugs intended for  ‘exclusive personal use or consumption in the near future’ have been exempt from criminal prosecution. However, in practice, while some offenders face only administrative sanctions, many others caught with small quantities are often found behind bars.

Colombia:  In May 2012, the Colombian House of Representatives passed a draft bill that decriminalises the cultivation of coca, marijuana, and opium poppy plants.  While Colombia is known for generally favouring the ‘war on drugs,’ approach, an emerging trend towards decriminalisation policies has been witnessed during the recent months.

Czech Republic: In 2010, The Czech Republic formally decriminalised possession of illegal drugs, after a detailed revision of the criminal laws adopted in 2000 and many years of intense debate.

Estonia: Possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use has been decriminalised in Estonia, following amendments to the Narcotic Drug and Psychotropic Substance Act in 2002.

Germany: Decriminalisation has been introduced in German law since the early 1990s. According to the EMCDDA, Germany continues to have moderately high rates of use of cannabis, cocaine and LSD. However, the prevalence of use among adults is significantly below that of the UK.

Italy: Drug use and possession was first decriminalised in Italy over three and a half decades ago. Since then, Italian drug laws and policies have fluctuated between harsh and lenient penalties for use and possession. In 2006, new legislation on drugs was initiated by the Italian parliament. In June of 2011, Italy’s Court of Cassation, its highest court, held that individuals could legally grow small amounts of cannabis on their home balconies or terraces. While the 2011 World Drug Report stresses that the prevalence of illicit drug use in Italy is one of the highest in Europe, the prevalence of heroin and cocaine use still remains lower than in the UK.

Mexico: In recent years, Mexico has established its reputation as the centre of drug war related violence. In 2009, possession of small quantities of drugs was decriminalized but many have decried this law change as a symbolic decriminalisation as there seemed to be lack of effective implementation.

Netherlands: The Netherlands has been considered as the global pioneer in drug policy. In 1976, a legal division between hard and soft drugs has been established. Netherlands is famous in the wide public for the creation of  ‘coffee shops’, where cannabis is legally sold in limited amounts. Drug possession in the Netherlands is not statutorily decriminalised but a non-prosecution policy operates, according to which prosecutors are not allowed to prosecute possession offences of up to 5 grams of cannabis for personal use. Recent research shows that Dutch drug policies result in low numbers of deaths from heroin and methadone and low rates of injecting drug use compared to the rest of the globe. The new conservative government wants to introduce a ‘weed pass’ system that will restrict the use of coffee shops to only legal residents of the Netherlands.

Paraguay: Paraguay has formally decriminalised possession of illicit drugs since 1988.

Peru: Peru is historically a major source of coca cultivation. The consumption of the traditional coca leaf has never been criminalised in Peru, but consumption and possession of other drugs for personal use have been exempted from maximum thresholds for personal possession. Research reveals a disconnection between policy and the reality of police practices in Peru. Police regularly detain individuals who are found in possession of drugs.

Poland: Poland introduced decriminalisation for the first time, when President Komorowski signed an amendment to the country’s drug laws in May 2011.

Portugal : Portugal decriminalised drug use and possession in 2001. With the existence of new harm reduction measures in 2001, syringe exchange schemes, mobile health units, important focus on public health and treatment, Portugal has witnessed significant increases in the number of drug-dependent individuals in treatment and has experienced reductions in transmission of HIV and tuberculosis.

The Russian Federation: Russia decriminalised possession of small quantities of drugs in the last 10 years, after many years of extremely harsh drug policies. The application of the decriminalisation model has been inconsistent. Apart from the failure to implement the decriminalisation model, treatment services and harm reduction programs have been unavailable, a fact that fuelled the HIV epidemic among injecting drug users. Human rights abuses against those who use drugs have been well documented. Some of those violations include beatings, starvation, long-term handcuffing to bed frames, electric shock and burying patients in the ground.

Spain:  Personal possession and private use of small amounts of drugs have been formally decriminalised in Spain for nearly 30 years. In 1992, the Spanish law first called for administrative penalties for public drug use and personal possession. Spain is known for the creation of the ‘cannabis clubs’, which are organisations that administer bars or clubs where members can use cannabis in private together with other members. 300 of those are estimated to operate in Spain. 

Uruguay: Possession of drugs for personal use has never been criminalised in Uruguay. The decriminalisation principle formally appeared in 1974 and was revised in 1998 to clarify ambiguities. Uruguay has been using harm reduction programmes to sustain its decriminalisation policy stance for the last 12 years. According to the 2011 UN World Drug Report, Uruguay reports lower prevalence of drug use than the UK for opiates, cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines and ecstasy. In April 2011, the Uruguayan legislature debated legalising cultivation and harvesting of up to eight cannabis plants per household.

USA- State of California:  While the USA is generally known to uphold extremely harsh drug laws and to witness incredibly high incarceration rates, US states have passed a variety of cannabis decriminalisation laws since 1973.

The report goes on to make a series of recommendations for an effective decriminalisation model. The three important points that are crucial elements of a successful decriminalisation policy are the following:

The adoption of thresholds: It is crucial that thresholds are appropriately used by the drug policy model. This in the first place means that decriminalisation should never legally prosecute those individuals caught with simple possession of drugs for personal use. In any case, threshold quantities should only be considered as indicative. The legal authorities should always decide on the penalties on a case-by-case basis, after taking into consideration all of the available evidence.

Response and sentencing: Some of the responses to the decriminalisation model favour a non-sanction principle, according to which people caught with small amounts of drugs only for personal use are not at all prosecuted and some other favour the enforcement of administrative penalties, mostly including fines for possession of drugs for personal use.

The report strongly recommends that police always work with treatment agencies and services so that each person is treated according to its individual needs and record. It also stresses the importance of proportionality in attributing sanctions for drug offences. It is critical that custodial periods and penalties for non-violent drug offences are always much less harsher than violent offences such as murder and rape.

Public health interventions and treatment: The report urges policymakers to invest seriously in public health and harm reduction programmes, with needle exchanges and opiate substitute-prescribing being at the heart of any decriminalisation model. Public health investment and decriminalisation should go hand in hand.

Implementation considerations: Implementation is one of the most important steps of the decriminalisation policy and should be carefully assessed by those who are responsible for putting policy into practice. Disproportionate enforcement of the law mostly targeting minorities and resulting in racial profiling is a very common practice and should be condemned and stopped. Policymakers should ensure that drug policies are implemented ‘fairly, effectively and efficiently’.

The report concludes by stating that decriminalisation has been having positive effects in the countries where it has been implemented and by making clear that the prevalence of drug use in those countries has not being following increasing patterns, contrarily to what some had predicted.

It is also crucial that governments understand that drug use is widely associated with many social factors such as poverty and inequality and that drug policy should consequently take those issues seriously into account.

It is more vital than ever to recognise that a big shift in global drug policy has to be made. Many countries around the globe are currently revising and assessing their drug policies, with Central and Latin America being at the centre of the call for reform. The time has come for an evidence-based drug policy approach to be established. It is time that societies protected and saved the lives of vulnerable members by ending the unfair and continued criminalisation of many of them.

You can read the whole report here