Side event – Decriminalising drug use: Concept and practice

Side event organised by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the Czech Republic, and Release.

Marie Nougier, Senior Research and Communications Officer, International Drug Policy Consortium – Decriminalisation is essential for a health-based approach to drugs. It has broad support from, among others, WHO, OHCHR and UNAIDS. But there are a lot of differences in how it is interpreted and implemented. The panel here will discuss this in more depth.

Edward Fox, Policy and Communications Manager, Release – Release is the UK centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws. Today we’re launching an update of our 2012 report ‘A Quiet Revolution: Drug Decriminalisation Policies Around the Globe’. We look at a range of jurisdictions that have decriminalised drugs. Among these countries, there is enormous variation in how decriminalisation is implemented. Portugal is one example, as is Russia – surprisingly – although their approach is decriminalisation in name only; it remains very punitive. Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001, in the face of a growing HIV crisis among injecting drug users. The shift to decriminalisation led to massive improvements in the health of this group, and actually a reduction in injecting. Decriminalisation also means huge savings. California decriminalised in 1976. They saved around $1 billion in law enforcement costs in the first year of this initiative.

A lot of people focus on the impact that decriminalisation has on levels of drug use. But our research shows that there is no real link between decriminalisation and drug consumption. A 2014 report by the UK Home Office confirmed this finding, stating that “there was no obvious relationship” between the toughness of a country’s law and its levels of drug use. Drug use is often not a particularly useful metric by which to assess the success of a given drug policy approach. Increases in drug use are not always harmful. Drug use can increase while harm decreases.

We recommend that there should be no punishment of any kind for low-level, non-violent drug offences.

Many UN agencies support decriminalisation – even the UNODC – and the evidence on the positive outcomes of decriminalisation cannot be refuted. It is also unequivocal that criminalisation has been a disaster. It would be deeply depressing if governments continue to criminalise drug users, given the evidence against this approach. Decriminalisation isn’t a panacea, but it can improve health and social outcomes significantly.

Gloria Lai, Senior Policy Officer, International Drug Policy Consortium – We’re launching another report in the next few days, and this focuses on drug decriminalisation in Asia. The International HIV/AIDS Alliance and ANPUD have been hugely helpful in producing this report. We thought this report was a really vital resource because there is very little discussion in Asia about alternative drug policy approaches, or whether current policies are producing successful outcomes. Throughout Asia, drug use is considered morally wrong, an evil, but because of an HIV epidemic in the region, many governments are coming round to the idea that a public health approach would be beneficial. But the problem is in Asia, places where administrative sentences are imposed rather than criminal ones, drug users can still be detained and abused, coerced into forced labour.

So what are the principles underpinning decriminalisation? And what does it mean? It means the removal or non-enforcement of criminal penalties for drug use, and for the possession of drugs, possession of drug use equipment and cultivation of drugs for the purpose of personal consumption. In the report, we highlight that decriminalisation can be a de jure policy, or a de facto policy, and provide examples of both. We also present a best-practice model of decriminalisation, which is one in which the law is changed to remove all penalties – civil/administrative, as well as criminal. To maximise public health outcomes, we stress that resources need to be made available for people who seek and desire harm reduction services.

In Asian countries that haven’t decriminalised drug use, we see so-called “diversion” programmes. But even when people are diverted away from the criminal justice system, they are still often diverted to drug detention centres, where many forms of abuse often occur.

The main purpose of this report is to promote models of decriminalisation that improve public health and social outcomes. Where governments are not ready to consider such approaches, we recommend that they at least look at proper, non-punitive diversion programmes.

Fabrice Olivet, Executive Director, Auto-Support des Usagers de Drogues could not be here today, as scheduled, but he wanted to play a video in his absence, on the criminalisation of drug users. It shows that the possession of small amounts of cannabis contribute to the criminalisation of people who use drugs, particularly people of colour, who are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. People who are black and young, living in poor neighbourhoods are most impacted by punitive drug laws.

Jindřich Vobořil, National Drug Coordinator, Czech Republic – I would like to return to the definition of decriminalisation. You said no penalties for possession for personal use. In our legislation, people are fined for possession of small quantities of drugs. So your definition would not apply to the Czech Republic. Neither would it apply to many other European countries that have decriminalised – even Portugal, for example.

I’d like to pick three myths that surround drug policies. 1) What comes first: supply or demand? The Czech Republic has the longest history of methamphetamine production – it’s existed for decades, and 70% of injecting drug users consume the drug. Users learned to produce, in small kitchen labs. And that’s whole the problem spread. That shows that the drugs issue is not just money-driven – it is also pleasure-driven. We can’t eliminate pleasure – nor would we want to – that’s why we need to minimise the harms that may come with it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many new drugs came into the Czech Republic. In the 90s, we underwent an economic transformation; it was similar to Portugal. We were not that rich – that’s why we wanted to look at the evidence, rather than spending lots of money on incarceration and law enforcement. That’s when the phrase harm reduction became more than a phrase – it was a philosophy around which we organised our national drugs strategy.

We have the lowest drug overdose rate on the planet. Less than 20 people a year die from overdoses. HIV prevalence among injecting drug users is under 1%. Hepatitis C prevalence used to be very high, but has decreased significantly.

The second myth I’d like to discuss is the rhetoric that claims that if we take a less punitive approach, then we’ll open a pandora’s box. We need decriminalisation to be complemented by treatment and prevention. Drug use is still also considered in immoral by many people in the Czech Republic. Now, however, we define addiction as an illness – a medical issue. A very high number of problematic drug users have other issues affecting them. We need to have a diverse approach that address all of their needs.

It was the public health threat of drug use that compelled us to change course. In the Czech Republic, we found that when we opened low-threshold services, it helped us increase the proportion of drug users in contact with health and social care professionals.

Question: What are your thoughts on the role of the police? Do you think they need to be retrained, to move away from a punitive approach?

A: EF – The need to change policing culture – the starting point is addressing the indicators of good policing. We need to remove arrest numbers as an indicator of success.

JV – In the Czech Republic, before we set up a dedicated agency for drugs, the parts of the police responsible for drugs where also in charge of child abuse and other youth-related issues. So these police officers could view them as young people, rather than drug-using criminals.

Q: In my country, Japan, people are criminalised for drug use. So each country should decide its own approach?

GL – We need to question the supposed deterrent effect of criminalisation. In Asia especially, people are using drugs at increasingly younger ages, and rates of consumption aren’t falling – despite incredibly harsh sentences that include corporal punishment or the use of drug detention centres, such as those found in China.

Q: Could I have more clarity on the point made about the various UN agencies supporting decriminalisation? Also, in France, we don’t have the capacity to track racial disparities in drug law enforcement.

A: MN – The WHO released consolidated guidelines in 2015, where they expressly called for the removal of criminal sanctions for people who use drugs. UNAIDS, UN Women, UNDP and OHCHR have all made the same call in their official contributions to UNGASS. And UNODC has for a long time supported decriminalisation, although its recent briefing paper on the subject was not officially published.

EF Release and LSE research found that you are six times more likely to be stopped and searches for drugs if you are black than if you are white, despite the fact that levels of use among these racial groups is roughly the same.


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