IDPC/Release side event – Decriminalisation: models and practice

Jamie Bridge, IDPC
This first presentation aimed at presenting the report of Release on Deriminalisation around the world. Criminalisation of drug use has led to a number of harms, including barriers to access health services, employment and education, a demonisation of people who use drugs, and has also been extremely costly.
Decriminalisation means that somebody caught in possession of drugs is not given a criminal record. Decriminalisation can be de jure, or de facto. However, the report does not include “escalated approaches” where first arrest does not lead to a criminal record, but subsequent ones do, as it happens in the UK.
21 jurisdictions have now adopted some form of decriminalisation. In some countries, this happened a long time ago. In some federal countries, only some states have adopted decriminalisation, such as in Australia, and this shows that decriminalisation has not had much impact on use, but it has had an important impact in reducing the negative impacts on health, social status, etc. Similarly in the USA, 14 states have decriminalised cannabis use.
There is a huge range of models, which has had an impact on the success of decriminalisation:

  • Who determines the offence – the police, the prosecutor, the judge, other?
  • Is there a threshold quantity to determine whether possession is for personal use? If so, what is the level of the quantity? This can be a key factor in the success of the model.
  • Issue of “net widening” – by changing the law, the unintended consequence is that the police might find it easier to target and tackle drug users, whereas they tended to ignore them before.
  • Whether sanctions are attached to possession for personal use and what is the level of the sanction. Experience shows that there is no correlation between the severity of the sanction and the level of drug use.
  • Whether the model includes referrals to treatment and social services, and what is the quality of those services.

Conclusions: many models have been developed, but further research is necessary to assess the impact of decriminalisation. This should include the views of people who use drugs to ensure that there are no unintended negative consequences from the model adopted. Finally, it is essential to re-state that decriminalisation has not led to an increase in drug use.

Joao Goulao, Portuguese Drug Czar
After the revolution and democratic process of 1974, drugs were introduced in Portugal, with a sudden rise in drug use, especially heroin use. This was a transversal issue with a social crisis, open drug scenes, etc. leading to a political concern. The prevalence of drug use was still below the European average, but there was a very high prevalence of problematic drug use. The discussion came from society movements, rather than from experts or politicians.
A group of experts and politicians came together to present recommendations on the situation. At the time, people still fear accessing treatment and other health services as they did during the dictatorship, and therefore some recommendations focused on access to treatment. This led to a new framework, with the decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use. The law made a distinction between users and traffickers, with the setting up of threshold quantities – 10 doses  was considered as being for personal use.
This presented challenges in terms of whether this would lead to drug tourism, of compliance with the UN conventions, and also on whether this would lead to an increase in drug use among young people. None of these concerns materialised in practice.
The current system is now based on the promotion of social inclusion and referrals to evidence-based drug treatment.

Jindrich Voboril, National Anti-Drug Coordinator, Czech Republic
The Czech Republic has a similar history as Portugal. During the communist regime, the main issue was alcohol use and drugs were very rare. But for the past 20 years, we have experienced increasing problems related to drug use and methamphetamine production. In the country, there is a low prevalence of problematic drug use, but a high prevalence of occasional use, linked with young people who use alcohol. This is the main issue in the country.
Drug policy has always been influenced by expert NGOs in the Czech Republic, not by the government initiatives. NGOs have therefore had an important role in the design of our drug strategy. And many NGO people then became involved in politics and the government.
In the Czech Republic, there is a focus on minimising harms among problematic drug users, rather than on primary prevention. We have therefore never adopted a very strict approach to the criminalisation of drug use.
NGOs also have a very good relationship with the media, which was extremely important in successfully designing pragmatic drug policies.
Until 1999, drug use was not criminalised. Then, possession became illegal if the amount was defined as “bigger than small”. At that time, the social democratic government decided that it would be down to the police to decide on what was a big quantity of drugs. However, this was then changed, and now, it is up to the government to decide on this, after strong and lengthy debates with professionals, the police, etc. There is now a table on threshold quantities.
The possession of small amounts of drugs is still punished by a severe EUR 600 fine. However, in practice, the police is not very strict in applying the law against possession of small amounts and on production for personal use. They rather focus on large-scale production of methamphetamine.
The new President has recently signed the last law allowing for medical cannabis, allowing for the importation, production and use of cannabis for medical purposes.

Ann Fordham, IDPC
IDPC has created a table featuring models of decriminalisation based on countries’ practice. This includes information on the legal process, who defines what is personal possession or intent to supply, who decides on sanctions, etc. We have then pinned country examples to these models of decriminalisation.
For example, for the model C of the table, the decriminalisation is de jure (in the law), there is an administrative offence attached to personal possession, the police can detain people but will refer them to an administrative body that will make a decision on the sanction, the criminal justice system only intervenes if the intent is for supply, and finally the sanction is is either administrative or the person is referred to health and social services. Examples of this model are Portugal and the Czech Republic.
A briefing paper will be drafted based on this decriminalisation model table.

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