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A quiet revolution: drug decriminalisation policies across the globe

Over 50 years into the ‘War on Drugs,’ national and international debate on drug policy continues to rage unabated, with few tangible results to show for the effort. Rates of drug use remain high across the world, incarceration for drug offences is at record levels,and spending to wage the ‘war’ costs billions of pounds each year. Our current drug policies are a failure.

But, across the globe, and out of the spotlight, governments are adopting a different policy approach to address drug use in their communities.

Some are reducing harsh penalties for drug offences to save costs; others are increasing their harm reduction and public health measures to limit the destructive impact of problematic drug use. However, rising costs, commitments to personal autonomy, and mounting evidence of the devastating consequences for individuals associated with the criminal justice response to drugs – stigmatisation, employment decline, public health harm – have led a number of countries towards an alternative policy option: decriminalisation of drug possession and use.

To call the decriminalisation option a new one is misleading. Some countries have had decriminalisation policies in place since the early 1970s; others never criminalised drug use and possession to begin with. However, in the past 10 years, a new wave of countries have moved toward the decriminalisation model, suggesting growing recognition of the failures of the criminalisation approach and a strengthening political wind blowing in the direction of an historic paradigm shift.

The models of decriminalisation vary; some countries adopt a de jure model – one defined by law; others have de-prioritised the policing of drug possession through de facto decriminalisation.

The recent trend towards decriminalisation has not been centred on one continent or in richer or poorer nations – countries as disparate as Armenia, Belgium, Chile, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Mexico and Portugal, among others, have all adopted some form of decriminalisation policy in the last decade or so. While the precise number of countries with formal decriminalisation policies is not clear, it is probably between 25 and 30, depending on which definitions are used.

In 2011, the decriminalisation policy model received a major endorsement when the Global Commission on Drug Policy published its report War on Drugs, which discussed the failure of the global war on drugs. This commission is composed of current and former heads of state, human rights and global health experts, economists, United Nations (UN) leaders and business leaders. The report included a recommendation that countries adopt decriminalisation policies, among other initiatives including investment in harm reduction services.