Drug laws around the world -
does anyone get it right?
does anyone get it right?
As a split emerges in the Government over Britain's future drug policy we look at the different approaches to drug control taken around the world
By Georgia Graham, The Telegraph Political Correspondent 30 Oct 2014
The coalition Government is at war over a new report which suggests that decriminalising drugs could have benefits to the UK.
The Home Office report examining a range of approaches, from zero-tolerance to decriminalisation, it concluded drug use was influenced by factors "more complex and nuanced than legislation and enforcement alone".
The Conservatives say despite the Home Office backed study indicating that decriminalising drugs, even class A substances such as heroin and cocaine, could have some benefits by reducing the burden on the criminal justice system the Government has "absolutely no plans" to decriminalise drugs.
The Liberal Democrats argue that punishing drug users is "pointless" with Lib Dem Home Office minister Norman Baker accusing No10 of sitting on the reports since July and blamed the Conservatives for blocking their release for ‘political reasons’.
It is not just British parties that are split over how to tackle drug use - countries across the world take very different approaches from decriminalisation to lengthy prison sentences and even death. Does anyone get it right?
A large part of the report focused on Portugal where drugs were effectively decriminalised over ten years ago. According to the Home Office analysis there has been a "considerable" improvement in the health of drug users in Portugal since the country made drug possession a health issue rather than a criminal one in 2001.
In 2000, Portugal decriminalized the use of all illicit drugs, and developed new policies on prevention, treatment, harm reduction and reinsertion. Drug use is no longer a crime, but it is still prohibited. The country's policy was a key comparison in the report written by Home Office civil servants.
Possession of what a person would use in 10 days or less is no longer a matter for the courts. Users are referred to “Commissions for Drug Addiction Dissuasion” where they are given treatment.
Over the last decade the approach appears to have worked in the country, with João Castel-Branco Goulão Portugal’s national drug coordinator saying the country has seen reductions in H.I.V. infections and in overdoses.
So what about the rest of the world?
Similarly to Portugal possession of drugs is illegal, but possession of small quantities treated as an “administrative offence”, punishable with a fine.
Unlike Portugal levels of cannabis use in the Czech Republic are among the highest in Europe.
While criminal penalties for possession were only introduced as recently as 2010 the report concluded that worse health outcomes were observed after drug possession was criminalised, and there was no evidence of reduced use.
In 2013 Uruguay became the first country in the world to full legalise marijuana. It is now the first nation in the world to break the International Convention on Drug Control, and legislate for the production, sale and consumption of cannabis.
10 per cent of the country’s prison population was for small drug offences – and 44 per cent of all drugs cases were for people detained for holding less than 10g of drugs.
Uruguayans will now be allowed to buy up to 40g a month from pharmacies, join a cannabis club which grows the plant for its members of grow up to six plants themselves.
The Government here says the change in the law is an effort to separate the marijuana market from more problematic drug use. This includes the smoking of “pasta base” - a cheap derivative of cocaine that is highly addictive when smoked and has become endemic in some poor communities.
However the Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has said the start of legal cannabis sales will be delayed until next year due to "practical difficulties".
Famously a tourist hot-spot for people seeking cannabis from countries with stricter controls substances defined as “soft” drugs, including cannabis, have been effectively decriminalised. Possession remains illegal here but police and courts operate a policy of tolerance.
The reported number of deaths linked to the use of drugs in the Netherlands, as a proportion of the entire population, is one of the lowest of the EU. Attempts to crack down on the use of cannabis by tourists have been widely ignored in the country.
However importing and exporting of any classified drug is a serious offence. The penalty can run up to 12 to 16 years if it is for hard drugs with a maximum of 4 years for importing or exporting large quantities of cannabis.
Japan has the toughest drug laws in the developed world. Its Pharmaceutical Affairs Law bans the production and sale of 68 types of drugs and has a zero-tolerance policy. Criminal sanctions are tougher than in the UK and relatively few people seek treatment.
Some products that are available over the counter as cold and flu remedies are banned and possession of even small amounts of drugs is punishable by lengthy imprisonment.
There are low levels of drug use in Japan but the report notes that it is difficult to decide whether this can be attributed to harsh penalties or a long cultural opposition to drugs and a society where cultural conformity is valued.
In 2012 states in the US - Washington State and Colorado – have legalised the recreational use of cannabis putting them in direct conflict with President Obama’s national drug policy.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow the use of medical marijuana on prescription.
However in Colorado aged over 21 are to be allowed to buy and possess up to an ounce (28g) of cannabis and grow six plants in a private, secure area. The first “25 million raised through taxes on these sales will go towards the building of schools.
In Washington licenses to sell marijuana are issued by the state alcohol control boards and the number of outlets are limited. They can’t be within 1000 feet of a school, playground or library.
Drug possession for personal use is technically classified as a minor administrative offense but punishment can be harsh – a 2,000 RMB fine and up to 15 days of administrative detention
The Government can also send people who are deemed to be drug addicts to a compulsory detoxification center for up to three years, plus up to three years' compulsory "community rehabilitation."
In 2013 Guangdong province in the south launched the "Thunder Anti-drug" special action. 97,200 drug users were detained and 47,400 people were sent to compulsory detoxification centers.
Smuggling or transporting or manufacturing 1,000 grams or more of opium and 50 grams of more of heroin can lead to a death sentence.
According to the most recent figures in 2008 there were 1,126,700 registered drug users, 900,000 were using heroin or other opioids.
While it has a similar drugs policy to the UK Ireland has been the leading the way on the control of 'legal highs'. In 2010 country has banned all ‘psychoactive’ substances unless specific exemptions are made, as is the case with tea, coffee and alcohol.
The country has recently followed the example of Netherlands and Germany and opened “fix rooms” for serious drug addicts where they can safely consume and inject drugs in a supervised environment.
The facilities are on offer to adults with serious addictions can bring their illegal drugs and take them, legally, under the watchful eye of a nurse. The capital Copenhagen opened the first with other cities following suit.
Sweden is seen as the toughest zero-tolerance state with regards to drugs in Western Europe.
Both use and possession are illegal. Even minor use can lead to a prison sentence six months although more generally leads to a fine.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that Sweden has one of the lowest drug usage rates in the Western world, and attributes this to a drug policy that invests heavily in prevention and treatment as well as strict law enforcement.
Although praised by those who back the ‘war on drugs’ approach for its low level of cannabis use of harder drugs is very high a proportion of drug use.
Drug treatment is free of charge and provided through the health care system and the municipal social services.
Peter’s Point of View
For most of the twentieth century a majority of people around the world favoured a hard-line approach to drugs and drug trafficking; lock them up and throw the key away, hang them, shoot them, cut their hands off, were popular catch-cries.
As the drug problem escalated the pro-punishment people called for even tougher sentences, and in many countries politicians responded accordingly, often against the advice of criminologists and addiction experts. Getting the votes was more important than getting it right.
This writer believes that it is no coincidence that the list of countries that have the death penalty for drug trafficking, are also among the most corrupt countries, politically and in terms of enforcement. Here is the full list of murderous states that kill traffickers, who, incidentally, are themselves mostly addicted victims of other traffickers: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Laos, Malaysia, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Sudan, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Vietnam, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
Almost all of these countries enacted their death penalty drug laws during the twentieth century in response to popular demand rather than informed advice. In the case of the USA, the War on Drugs commenced in earnest under that infamous criminal vote-getter, Richard Nixon. That alone should have been enough to tell Americans and the world that the War on Drugs would fail.
Lethal and addictive drugs will never be eliminated entirely, but a totally new approach to this age-old curse could make a significant reduction in the number of new addicts, wrecked lives and drug deaths.
First, governments must recognise that addiction is a health issue rather than a criminal issue. They must stop punishing and start treating. Putting a drug addict in prison will not stop addiction any more than prison or punishment will stop anyone catching a disease or falling ill, because addiction is an illness.
Next, governments must put the dealers out of business by destroying their market. To do that they need to take a leaf out of the colonial history of Australia. Twenty years after the founding of the convict colony, in January 1808, a military coup saw Governor William Bligh arrested and deposed. The military then ran the government for the next two years until the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie with a new military unit. The earlier military had been the power behind the throne, so to speak, right from the arrival of the First Fleet. They also controlled the colony’s commerce including the trade in rum which, in the absence of banknotes and coinage, had become the main instrument of exchange. The rum had a high value and led to widespread drunkenness and addiction. Macquarie imported vast quantities of rum with the intention of flooding the market and making alcohol worthless. The arrival of a large supply of Spanish dollars also helped until English and Australian coins became available. So the ‘Rum Rebellion’ that saw Bligh ousted eventually resulted in the downfall of the military and the powerful and rich John MacArthur. The inscription on Macquarie’s grave in Scotland is ‘Father of Australia.’
But to return to the drug dealers, the answer is simple – flood the market with free drugs, distributed by the government. That’s what Governor Macquarie would have done. The money currently wasted on futile enforcement and imprisonment could then be diverted to treatment of the health issue that it is.