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Pike, Brigid (2013) Global trends in decriminalisation. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 47, Autumn 2013, p. 11.

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Decriminalising drug possession does not lead to any statistical increase in drug use. This was the key message of the final presenter at the CityWide conference, Niamh Eastwood, executive director of UK-based Release.1 She spoke about a recent Release report on drug decriminalisation policies around the world.2 

Decriminalisation means the removal of criminal sanctions for illegal drug possession. Release sees decriminalisation as being especially important because it means that individuals do not end up with a criminal record.  Release argues that it is the criminal justice approach to drugs that has led to the greatest harms to individuals and to society: it has spawned generations of people isolated from mainstream society as a result of incarceration, issue avoidance, or the stigma attached to drug use.
Speaking to a map of the world, Eastwood highlighted the various approaches to decriminalisation in the 21 countries described in the report. She defined two main approaches to decriminalising drug use:
-    de jure, based on legislation that removes the criminal sanctions for possession, or based on a constitutional ruling that criminalising drug possession is contrary to the country’s constitution, or
-    de facto, where drug possession is a criminal offence on the statute book but the police and the prosecution do not enforce the law.
Eastwood gave examples of where decriminalisation of drug possession had had a positive impact on drug use prevalence and problematic drug use. However, she identified implementation issues to be aware of:
-    Fine-tuning the mechanism:  Any decriminalisation policy needs careful monitoring and adjustment. For example, in South Australia, ‘net widening’ was found to occur: because the fine for drug possession had been set too high and a payment plan had not been put in place, many people ended up in prison for non-payment of the fine. The authorities adjusted the system, reducing the level of the fines and allowing for payment in instalments.
-    Politicians may be part of the problem: Owing to a combination of hypocrisy, by being tough on drug users while also admitting to having used drugs in the past, and stupidity, through failing to listen to the debate or admit the need for review, politicians may delay the process of devising more effective drug policies.
-    Incrementalism: Decriminalisation is not a panacea; it does not have any significant impact on the supply side or on drug-related crime. But Eastwood argued that it is part of an incremental reform process, as evidenced by subsequent reforms such as the establishment of cannabis social clubs in Spain, the legalisation of medicinal cannabis in the Czech Republic, and the setting up of fully regulated cannabis markets in the states of Washington and Colorado, and in Uruguay.
Release’s survey of countries which have decriminalised drug use is the first of three reports in support of its campaign ‘Drugs – It’s Time for Better Laws’, which was launched in the UK in June 2011. The second report, due in 2013, will look at the disproportionate impact of policing and prosecution of drug possession offences on black and Asian communities in the UK. The final report, due in 2014, will look at the economic costs associated with policing and prosecuting the possession of drugs in the UK.  
1. For more information on Release, visit www.release.org.uk
2. Rosmarin A and Eastwood N (2012) A quiet revolution: drug decriminalisation policies in practice across the globe. London: Release.Available to download at http://release.org.uk/publications/drug-decriminalisation-policies-in-practice-across-the-globe 
Item Type
Publication Type
International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 47, Autumn 2013
Page Range
p. 11
Health Research Board
Issue 47, Autumn 2013
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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