Drug liberalization

Drug liberalization

Drug liberalization is the process of eliminating or reducing drug prohibition laws. Variations of drug liberalization (also spelled liberalisation) include drug relegalization, drug legalization, and drug decriminalization [1]



The 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances made it mandatory for the signatory countries to “adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offences under its domestic law” (art. 3, §1) all the activities related to the production, sale, transport, distribution, etc. of the substances included in the most restricted lists of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Criminalization also applies to the “cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush or cannabis plants for the purpose of the production of narcotic drugs”. The Convention distinguishes between the intent to traffic and personal consumption, stating that the latter should also be considered a criminal offence, but “subject to the constitutional principles and the basic concepts of [the state’s] legal system” (art. 3, §2).[2]

As a result the prison population throughout most of the world exploded, partly due to the tightening of anti-drug laws, under the influence of the 1988 Convention. The subsequent prison crisis and lack of positive impact on drug use prompted various depenalisation and decriminalization reforms. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) defines decriminalization as the removal of a conduct or activity from the sphere of criminal law; depenalisation signifying merely a relaxation of the penal sanction exacted by law. Decriminalization usually applies to offences related to drug consumption and may include either the imposition of sanctions of a different kind (administrative) or the abolition of all sanctions; other (noncriminal) laws then regulate the conduct or activity that has been decriminalized. Depenalisation usually consists of personal consumption as well as small-scale trading and generally signifies the elimination or reduction of custodial penalties, while the conduct or activity still remains a criminal offence. The term legalization refers to the removal of all drug-related offences from criminal law: use, possession, cultivation, production, trading, etc.[2][3]

Drug liberalization proponents hold differing reasons to support liberalization, and have differing policy proposals. The two most common positions are drug relegalization (or legalization), and drug decriminalization.

Drug re-legalization

Drug re-legalization calls for the end of government-enforced prohibition on the distribution or sale and personal use of specified (or all) currently banned drugs. Proposed ideas range from full legalization which would completely remove all forms of government control, to various forms of regulated legalization, where drugs would be legally available, but under a system of government control which might mean for instance:[4]

  • mandated labels with dosage and medical warnings,
  • restrictions on advertising,
  • age limitations,
  • restrictions on amount purchased at one time,
  • requirements on the form in which certain drugs would be supplied,
  • ban on sale to intoxicated persons,
  • special user licenses to purchase particular drugs.

The regulated legalization system would probably have a range of restrictions for different drugs, depending on their perceived risk, so while some drugs would be sold over the counter in pharmacies or other licensed establishments, drugs with greater risks of harm might only be available for sale on licensed premises where use could be monitored and emergency medical care made available. Examples of drugs with different levels of regulated distribution in most countries include: caffeine (coffee, tea), nicotine (tobacco),[5] ethyl alcohol (beer, wine, spirits), and antibiotics.

Full legalization is often proposed by groups such as libertarians who object to drug laws on moral grounds, while regulated legalization is suggested by groups such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition who object to the drug laws on the grounds that they fail to achieve their stated aims and instead greatly worsen the problems associated with use of prohibited drugs, but who acknowledge that there are harms associated with currently prohibited drugs which need to be minimized. Not all proponents of drug re-legalization necessarily share a common ethical framework, and people may adopt this viewpoint for a variety of reasons. In particular, favoring drug re-legalization does not imply approval of drug use.[6]

Drug decriminalization

Drug decriminalization calls for reduced control and penalties compared to existing laws. Proponents of drug decriminalization generally support the use of fines or other punishment to replace prison terms, and often propose systems whereby illegal drug users who are caught would be fined, but would not receive a permanent criminal record as a result. A central feature of drug decriminalization is the concept of harm reduction.

Drug decriminalization is in some ways an intermediate between prohibition and legalisation, and has been criticised as being "the worst of both worlds", in that drug sales would still be illegal, thus perpetuating the problems associated with leaving production and distribution of drugs to the criminal underworld, while also failing to discourage illegal drug use by removing the criminal penalties that might otherwise cause some people to choose not to use drugs.[citation needed]

Currently, Portugal is the only country in the world that has decriminalized the use of all drugs [7], meaning anyone caught with any type of drug, if it's for consumption, will not be imprisoned. Spain and Italy have recently followed Portugal's example [8]


There are numerous economic and social impacts of the criminalization of drugs. Prohibition increases crime (theft, violence, corruption) and drug price and increases potency.[9] In many developing countries the production of drugs offers a way to escape poverty. Milton Friedman estimated that over 10,000 deaths a year in the US are caused by the criminalization of drugs, and if drugs were to be made legal innocent victims such as those shot down in drive by shootings, would cease to come about. The economic inefficiency and ineffectiveness of such government intervention in preventing drug trade has been fiercely criticised by drug-liberty advocates. The War on Drugs of the United States, that provoked legislation within several other Western governments, has also garnered criticism for these reasons.


The cultivation, use and trade of psychoactive and other drugs has occurred since civilization's existence. In the 20th century, the United States government led a major renewed surge in drug prohibition called the "War on Drugs." Although the present War on Drugs is a modern phenomenon, drug laws have been a common feature of human law for several hundred years.[citation needed] Today's War on Drugs bears many similarities to earlier drug laws, particularly in motivation.

Motivations claimed by supporters of drug prohibition laws across various societies and eras have included religious observance, allegations of violence by racial minorities, and public health concerns. Those who are not proponents of anti-drug legislation characterize these motivations as religious intolerance, racism, and public healthism.

Various proponents of drug liberalization wish to repeal these laws for reasons ranging from individual rights-based defenses of liberty, to consequentialist arguments against the economic and social outcomes of drug prohibition. Starting in the 20th century, large organized movements to overturn existing drug laws formed around the world. The most vocal of these groups exist in liberal democracies, and typically attract liberal and libertarian supporters, although drug liberalization itself is a non-partisan issue and may be supported by adherents of any ideology.

The campaign against alcohol prohibition culminated in the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution repealing prohibition on December 5, 1933, as well as liberalization in Canada, and some but not all of the other countries that enforced prohibition. However, many laws controlling the use of alcohol continue to exist even in these countries.

Current proponents of drug liberalization seek the repeal or softening of drug prohibition laws, most commonly cannabis but also including other controlled substances such as alcohol, tobacco, opiates, stimulants, psychedelics, dissociatives, prescription drugs, and others.[citation needed]

Drug liberalization movements in specific countries

United States

Throughout the United States people have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana for medical reasons. see <http://www.cannacenterstoday.com/ca/s/?ref=Google+PPC&gclid=CMvrlO7CvKsCFQl1gwodH1STuQ> In 1996, 56% of California voters voted for Proposition 215, legalizing the growing and use of marijuana for medical purposes. This created significant legal and policy tensions between federal and state governments. Courts have since decided that state laws in conflict with a federal law about cannabis are not valid. Cannabis is restricted by federal law (see Gonzales v. Raich).


In August 2009, the Argentine supreme court declared in a landmark ruling that it was unconstitutional to prosecute citizens for having drugs for their personal use - "adults should be free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state".[10] The decision affected the second paragraph of Article 14 of the country’s drug control legislation (Law Number 23,737) that punishes the possession of drugs for personal consumption with prison sentences ranging from one month to two years (although education or treatment measures can be substitute penalties). The unconstitutionality of the article concerns cases of drug possession for personal consumption that does not affect others.[11][12]


Australians have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana since the early 1970's with the Cannabis Research Foundation of Australia in Victoria. Other active groups in the later Seventies included the Australian Marijuana Party and the Marijuana Petition Organisation. During the 1980's an independent Australian chapter of NORML was established and became the main force in the Cannabis Campaign till the early 90's. In 199? HEMP Help End Marijuana Prohibition was established and continued the fight for law reform. In 2010? HEMP qualified as a political party and will be fielding candidates in elections where possible.

In 2011 the Cannabis Campaign seemed to experience a renaissence in Australia , no doubt due to developments worldwide, with many new groups appearing in different States, leveraging social media as a conduit and forum.

Since 1985 the Federal Government has run a declared 'War on Drugs' and whilst initially we led the world in 'harm-minimisation' approach we since slipped behind. The campaign continues.


In 2002 and 2006 the country went through legislative changes, resulting in a partial decriminalization of possession for personal use. Prison sentences no longer applied and were replaced by educational measures and community services.[13] However, the 2006 law does not provide objective means to distinguish between users or traffickers. A disparity exists between the decriminalization of drug use and the increased penalization of selling drugs, punishable with a maximum prison sentences of 5 years for the sale of very minor quantities of drugs. Most of those incarcerated for drug trafficking are offenders caught selling small quantities of drugs, among them drug users who sell drugs to finance their drug habits.[14]


A dried flowered bud of the Cannabis sativa plant.

The cultivation of cannabis is currently illegal in Canada, with exceptions only for medical usage. However, the use of cannabis by the general public is tolerated to a certain degree and varies depending on location and jurisdiction,[15] and a vigorous campaign to legalize cannabis is underway nation-wide.

In 2001, the Globe and Mail reported that a poll found that 47% of Canadians agreed with the statement, "The use of marijuana should be legalized" in 2000, compared to 26% in 1975.[16] A more recent poll found that more than half of Canadians supported legalization. However, in 2007 Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government tabled Bill C-26 to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to bring forth a more restrictive law with higher minimum penalties for drug crimes.[17][18] Bill-26 died in committee after the dissolution of the 39th Canadian Parliament in September 2008, but the Bill has subsequently been resurrected by the Canadian government twice.[19][20]

Czech Republic

On December 14, 2009, the Czech Republic adopted a new law that took effect on January 1, 2010, and allows a person to possess up to 15 grams of marijuana or 1.5 grams of heroin without facing criminal charges. These amounts are higher (often many times) than in any other European country, possibly making the Czech Republic the most liberal country in the European Union when it comes to drug liberalization.[21]


In April 2009, the Mexican Congress approved changes in the General Health Law that decriminalized the possession of illegal drugs for immediate consumption and personal use, allowing a person to possess up to 5g of marijuana or 500 mg of cocaine. The only restriction is that people in possession of drugs should not be within a 300 meter radius of schools, police departments, or correctional facilities. Opium, heroin, LSD, and other synthetic drugs were also decriminalized, it will not be considered as a crime as long as the dose does not exceed the limit established in the General Health Law.[22]

The law establishes very low amount thresholds and strictly defines personal dosage. For those arrested with more than the threshold allowed by the law this can result in heavy prison sentences, as they will be assumed to be small traffickers even if there are no other indications that the amount was meant for selling.[23]


The drug policy of the Netherlands is based on 2 principles:

  1. Drug use is a public health issue, not a criminal matter
  2. A distinction between hard drugs and soft drugs exists

Cannabis remains a controlled substance in the Netherlands and both possession and production for personal use are still misdemeanors, punishable by fine. Cannabis coffee shops are also illegal according to the statutes.[24]

However, a policy of non-enforcement has led to a situation where reliance upon non-enforcement has become common, and because of this the courts have ruled against the government when individual cases were prosecuted.


In 2001, Portugal became the first European country to abolish all criminal penalties for personal drug possession. In addition, drug users were to be targeted with therapy rather than prison sentences. Research commissioned by the Cato Institute and led by Glenn Greenwald found that in the five years after the start of decriminalisation, illegal drug use by teenagers had declined, the rate of HIV infections among drug users had dropped, deaths related to heroin and similar drugs had been cut by more than half, and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction had doubled.[25] However, Peter Reuter, a professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, while conceding that Portuguese decriminalization met its central goal of stopping the rise in drug use, suggests that the heroin usage rates and related deaths may have been due to the cyclical nature of drug epidemics.[26]


On June 14, 2010, the Stoltenberg commission recommended implementing heroin assisted treatment and expanding harm reduction measures.[27] On 18 June 2010, Knut Storberget, Minister of Justice and the Police announced that the ministry is working on new drug policy involving decriminalization by the Portugal model, which will be introduced to parliament before the next general election.[28] Later, however, Storberget has changed his statements, saying the decriminalization debate is "for academics", instead calling for coerced treatment.[29]


Uruguay is one of the few countries that never criminalized the possession of drugs for personal use. Since 1974, the law establishes no quantity limits, leaving it to the judge’s discretion to determine whether the intent was personal use. Once it is determined by the judge that the amount in possession was meant for personal use, there are no sanctions.[30]

Political parties

Many political parties support liberalizing drug control laws include from libertarian parties to far left movements.

In 2011, the Liberal Democrats in the UK adopted a policy of moving towards to Portugal model of decriminalisation and advocating treatment rather than prosecution. The Green Party also support the legalisation of cannabis. Alan Duncan is also a Conservative MP well known for his advocacy of a free market for drugs.

There are also numerous single issue marijuana parties devoted to campaign for the legalisation of cannabis exclusively.

See also


  1. ^ Proceedings of the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, May 28, 2001
  2. ^ a b Drug Policy Reform in Practice: Experiences with alternatives in Europe and the US, Tom Blickman & Martin Jelsma, Transnational Institute, July 2009.
  3. ^ Illicit drug use in the EU: legislative approaches, EMCDDA thematic papers, Lisbon 2005
  4. ^ After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (12 Nov 2009)
  5. ^ Tobacco regulation: Saving livings vs personal freedom, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (3 Feb 2010)
  6. ^ Reformers and not 'pro-drug' Mr Costa, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (7 Dec 2009)
  7. ^ http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html
  8. ^ http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=portugal-drug-decriminalization
  9. ^ Thornton, Mark. "The Economics of Prohibition". http://mises.org/story/2269. 
  10. ^ Jenkins, Simon (2009-09-03). "The war on drugs is immoral idiocy. We need the courage of Argentina - While Latin American countries decriminalise narcotics, Britain persists in prohibition that causes vast human suffering". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/03/drugs-prohibition-latin-america. Retrieved 2009-09-05. 
  11. ^ Argentina’s supreme court “Arriola” ruling on the possession of drugs for personal consumption, Intercambios, September 1, 2009
  12. ^ Argentina: Reform on the way?, Graciela Touzé, Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 6, July 2010
  13. ^ Drug Law Reform in Latin America (accessed September 14, 2010)
  14. ^ Too many in jail for drugs offenses in Brazil, Comunidad segura, August 13, 2009
  15. ^ http://www.sesresearch.com/library/polls/POLNAT-W03-T113.pdf
  16. ^ http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v01.n923.a01.html
  17. ^ "The Government of Canada Tables Legislation that Penalizes Producers and Traffickers of Illegal Drugs" (Press release). Canadian Department of Justice. November 11, 2007. http://www.nationalantidrugstrategy.gc.ca/nr-cp/doc2007_11_20.html. Retrieved September 6, 2010. 
  18. ^ "39th Parliament - 2nd Session: Bill C-26". LEGISinfo. Parliament of Canada. August 30, 2010. http://www2.parl.gc.ca/Sites/LOP/LEGISINFO/index.asp?Language=E&Chamber=N&StartList=A&EndList=Z&Session=15&Type=0&Scope=I&query=5330&List=stat. Retrieved September 6, 2010. 
  19. ^ "Government Re-Introduces Legislation to Fight Serious Drug Crimes" (Press release). Canadian Department of Justice. February 27, 2010. http://www.nationalantidrugstrategy.gc.ca/nr-cp/doc2009_02_27.html. Retrieved September 6, 2010. 
  20. ^ "Government Re-Introduces Legislation to Crack Down on Organized Drug Crime" (Press release). Canadian Department of Justice. May 5, 2010. http://www.nationalantidrugstrategy.gc.ca/nr-cp/doc2010_05_05.html. Retrieved September 6, 2010. 
  21. ^ New drug guidelines are Europe's most liberal, The Prague Post, December 23, 2009
  22. ^ Ley de Narcomenudeo, El Pensador (Spanish), October 17, 2009
  23. ^ Mexico: The Law Against Small-Scale Drug Dealing. A Doubtful Venture, Jorge Hernández Tinajero & Carlos Zamudio Angles, Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 3, November 2009
  24. ^ http://www.drugsweb.nl/drugsweb153.asp
  25. ^ Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies, Glenn Greenwald, Cato Institute, April 2009
  26. ^ Szalavitz, Maia (26 April 2009). "Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?". TIME. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html. Retrieved 23 May 2009. 
  27. ^ http://www.encod.org/info/NORWEGIAN-COMMISSION-RECOMMENDS.html ENCOD.org: Norwegian commission recommends drug policy reform
  28. ^ http://www.dagbladet.no/2010/06/18/nyheter/knut_storberget/narkotika/narkotikapolitikk/innenriks/12188316/ Dagbladet
  29. ^ http://www.abcnyheter.no/borger/101228/justisministrenes-nei-til-avkriminalisering ABC Nyheter
  30. ^ Drug Law Reform in Latin America, (accessed September 14, 2010)

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