All You Need To Know About Drug Decriminalisation

by Ella Walsh

What is decriminalisation?

Decriminalisation theoretically refers to the removal of a criminal sanction from an act. 

What does it mean if a drug is decriminalised?

When we refer to decriminalisation in drug policy, it is typically a model where possession and consumption of specified substances are no longer considered, or responded to, as a crime. In a this model people who are found in possession of small quantities of decriminalised drugs, deemed for personal use, will not be arrested by the police or prosecuted by the courts. 

However, how a theoretical model of decriminalisation translates into policy, and then through the practises of systems and institutions which are underpinned by these reforms, can vary greatly depending on the jurisdiction. This is largely due to the inherent social and political differences between countries, as well as the nature of the democratic policy making process.

Put simply, the model of drug decriminalisation in Portugal isn’t the same as the proposed model for decriminalising cannabis in Malta.

Despite variation between models, at the centre of decriminalisation is a notion that drug use should not be responded to as a criminal issue, and addiction isn’t something that can be dealt with by the police, nor within the criminal justice system.

How does decriminalisation reduce harm?

While decriminalisation alone doesn’t inherently produce harm reduction measures, harm reduction is often a key driver behind this type of reform. Underpinning harm reduction is the belief that drug use and addiction is a health issue, and should be responded to with a health-based approach.

Drug decriminalisation is often accompanied by wider health and social measures, aimed at reducing the harms associated with drug use. Support for those who are experiencing a problematic relationship with drugs, often entwined with trauma and mental health, is most often also offered. 

One example of how decriminalisation directly facilitates harm reduction is the introduction and operation of safe consumption sites. Such services would typically be in conflict with wider drug control, but within a decriminalised model this type of service can be legally facilitated.

Are drugs decriminalised in the UK?

All drugs classed under the Misuse of Drugs act remain illegal to possess, sell or produce.

However, across the UK there are examples of localised attempts from police to respond to drugs in a different way from criminalisation, through diversion and de-prioritisation. For example, in 2015 Durham police decided to de-prioritise cannabis possession offences, and even provided a route to allow people to grow cannabis for personal use.

Moreover, powers held by the Lord Advocate in Scotland has allowed for recent reforms of a decriminalised nature, where by police have extended powers of discretion with how they respond to possession of Class A drugs, offering diversionary measures from the criminal justice system. There are also other examples of diversion schemes running across the UK, such as project ADDER. 

Are there any examples of drug decriminalisation?

One of the most referenced examples of drug decriminalisation is the Portuguese model.

Prior to reforms in 2001, the rate of drug-related deaths in Portugal was similar to other European countries, with HIV cases (largely as a result of IV drug use) making up 50% of cases all in Europe.

Following reforms in 2001 the number of drug related deaths significantly dropped, and while there has been some fluctuation over the past 20 years, generally the rate of drug-related deaths has remained below the European average. Moreover, the number of HIV cases attributed to IV drug use has dramatically fallen, now accounting for 1.7% of cases in Europe.

Another area where the positive impacts of reform can be witnessed is the criminal justice system, where the sentencing for drug offences has impressively fallen.

Is decriminalisation the same as legalisation?

Decriminalisation is often mistaken for other types of drug policy reforms. Decriminalisation typically does not allow people to sell or produce drugs, and most decriminalisation models do not provide a legal pathway for consumers to buy drugs. 

Decriminalisation simply means that, in the eyes of the law, possessing up to a certain amount of any specified drug is not a crime.

If policy makers were to create a legal regulatory framework through which drugs were produced, licensed, and marketed to consumers, then it would be considered legalisation. A legal drug market would, in theory, operate similarly to existing legal drug markets, such as the alcohol and tobacco industries. 

Where the decriminalisation of cannabis is concerned there are some models which have provided legal pathways for buying and consuming cannabis, such as the Coffeeshop model in the Netherlands, and non-profit social club model in Spain. However, both models operate within legal grey areas, reliant on law enforcement to tolerate their operations, and leaving business and organisations vulnerable to state intervention and criminalisation.

Decriminalisation is not…

There are also other types of drug policy reforms and non-penal responses to drug use and possession which are often mistaken as decriminalisation. These include de-penalisation, de-prioritisation of possession and de-facto decriminalisation. 

 This article was written by Content Officer Ella Walsh, tweets @snoop_ella.

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