decriminalisation of drugs is a hotly debated and controversial topic
worldwide, with the common denominator being reducing drug abuse, the criminal
and violent activity that goes along with it, and considering the best approach
to public spending (on rehabilitation instead of incarceration, for example).
Drug use is a pressing issue and serious health problem across the world that
affects all races, genders, and socioeconomic strata. The decriminalisation of
drugs, however, does not necessarily mean that consuming, selling, and possessing
drugs will be legal.
Decriminalisation occurs when a state repeals or amends its
laws to make certain acts criminal, but no longer subject to prosecution1,
while legalisation refers to when people face no legal punishment for an
The drugs in question are those which are illegal in most countries such as stimulants
(including ecstasy, amphetamines, and cocaine), depressants (such as Xanax),
inhalants (such as nitrous oxide), opioids (including heroin, codeine, and
morphine), hallucinogens (such as LSD), dissociatives (such as ketamine and
PCP), and cannabis3. There are many types of
drug-related crimes; for example, the following offenses are illegal in Queensland,
Australia: possessing, supplying, trafficking, driving under the influence of,
and producing illegal drugs, possessing drug paraphernalia (such as bongs, pill
presses, and pipes), and permitting a place to be used for illegal drug
In most countries around the world, all of these offenses are illegal as well.
The decriminalisation of drugs would have economic, legal,
social, and health impacts worldwide, which must be evaluated and considered in
determining whether decriminalisation would be feasible. Successes and
challenges in countries that have already decriminalised drugs must be assessed
as well to decide whether decriminalisation can have the following positive
results on a global scale: a greater number of people receiving rehabilitative
help, reduced drug use, and lower levels of drug-related crime such as
trafficking of drugs, arms, and people.
Several countries have already decriminalised drugs, and
seen both benefits and drawbacks. For example, the year 2001 saw the
decriminalisation of all drug use in Portugal, which now treats using and
possessing small amounts of previously illegal drugs as a public health problem
instead of a criminal issue, giving most attention to helping addicts instead
of punishing them5. This drug policy has seen
successes in its objectives; for example, for every one million citizens, there
are only three deaths due to drug overdoses among Portuguese adults, much lower
than in the U.K. (44.6 deaths per million) and the EU average (17.3 deaths per
Additionally, drug use has fallen for youths aged 15-24 since 20017,
and the rates of continuation of drug use (percentage of people who use illegal
drugs multiple times) have decreased in Portugal8.
This change can be attributed to the fact that when drugs are illegal, users
are less likely to seek rehabilitative help for fear of legal prosecution and
social ostracism. However, decriminalisation has resulted in more drug users
seeking rehabilitation as they will not receive punishment or obtain a criminal
and also over time, Portuguese society has become more tolerant and inclusive
to drug abusers10. As a result of these two
factors, drug users have been successfully reintegrated into society after
finding jobs and not breaking family ties; this would be impossible if the drug
users were incarcerated. The reintegration of addicts into society through job
placement programs also prevents them from engaging in substance abuse again.
In addition to a reduction in drug abuse, the incidence of
drug-associated health problems has fallen in Portugal following
decriminalisation. For example, between 2001 and 2012, the number of
newly-diagnosed HIV cases among drug users in Portugal fell from 1,016 to 56
per year, and the number of newly-diagnosed AIDS cases in drug users decreased
from 568 to 38 per year11.
The decriminalisation of drugs in the Czech Republic also saw similar results,
as less than 1% of drug users are infected with HIV12.
These statistics can be attributed in part to the government and outreach
programs providing addicts with fresh hypodermic needles to halt the spread of
HIV/AIDS through the sharing of contaminated needles in countries that have
decriminalised drugs. For example, in Mexico, the government provides addicts
with hygienic needles to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS13.
decriminalisation of drugs saw positive legal implications in Portugal as well.
For example, the number of people arrested and sent to criminal court over drug
offenses fell from 14,000 per year in 2000 to under 6,000 per year following
the decriminalisation of drugs14.
Also, the percentage of drug-related offenders in Portuguese prison decreased
to under 21% in 2012 from 44% in 199915.
These results may be seen if drugs are decriminalised on a global scale as
governments will focus on, instead of criminally charging addicts, treating
them at rehabilitation centres and not sending them to prison. This will also enable
courts to focus on other pressing issues and allocate taxpayer money towards
other issues rather than incarceration for drug use16.
The decriminalisation of drugs will also reduce crimes which result from
underground drug markets like theft, robbery, and assault as law enforcement
can devote more resources towards prosecuting drug dealers instead of users17.
despite all these apparent benefits, decriminalising drugs may also have some
drawbacks on a global scale. Firstly, the reason most drugs are illegal is
because they have serious, negative, life-altering impacts on the human body,
and the act of decriminalisation may promote greater use of dangerous drugs in
some countries due to a lack of serious consequences for engaging in this
behaviour. If more people experiment with drugs, it could lead to higher
addiction rates globally, which would pump more money into drug trafficking
rings and promote related crimes such as illicit human and arms trade. Also,
the decriminalisation of drugs may imply that the use of drugs is morally
tolerable in society, which could create pro-drug stigmas in some societies.
cost of implementing policy in poor countries, opportunity cost to spending
government funds on treatment centres
addition, drugs have only been decriminalised in a few countries around the
world for a short amount of time; there is no telling the impact of such a
significant policy change on a global scale. More studies should be performed
to critically assess
5 Ingraham, C. (2015) ‘Why hardly anyone dies from a drug overdose in
Portugal’ , Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/05/why-hardly-anyone-dies-from-a-drug-overdose-in-portugal/?utm_term=.d9ed70ccdf4c
7 Hughes, C. E. and Stevens, A. (2012) ‘A resounding success or a
disastrous failure: Reexamining the interpretation of evidence on the
Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs’, Drug and Alcohol Review, vol.
31, pp. 101-113. http://kar.kent.ac.uk/29901/1/ Hughes%20%20Stevens%202012.pdf
8 Instituto da Droga e da Toxicodependência
(2013) op. cit., p. 21.
9 Bushak, L. (2016) ‘Portugal’s
Drug Experiment: Tackling Heroin Addiction By Decriminalizing Drugs And
Focusing On Health’, Medical Daily. http://www.medicaldaily.com/portugal-drug-experiment-heroin-decriminalizing-drugs-382598
10 Ferreira, S. (2017) ‘Portugal’s radical drugs policy is working.
Why hasn’t the world copied it?’, The Guardian.
11 European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2014)
‘Data and statistics’. http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/data/2014
12 ‘These Four Countries Prove That Decriminalization Works Better
Than Prohibition’, The Influence. http://theinfluence.org/these-four-countries-prove-that-decriminalization-works-better-than-prohibition/
14 Data taken from Hughes, C. E. and Stevens, A. (2010), p. 1009, and European
Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2013) op. cit., p. 106.
15 Data for 1999 taken from Instituto da Droga e da Toxicodependência
(2004) ‘Relatório Anual 2003 – A Situação do País em Matéria de Drogas e
Toxicodependências’, p. 141. http://www.sicad.pt/PT/Publicacoes/Paginas/detalhe.aspx?itemId=11=SICAD_
PUBLICACOES=BK/Publicacoes/ Data for year 2012 taken from Instituto
da Droga e da Toxicodependência (2013) op. cit., p. 105.