Examples of Drug Policies around the World

June 20, 2009

I’d like to revisit an interesting article on drug policies that appeared in the Economist on March 5. Under a trio of conventions passed by the United Nations in 1961, 1971 and 1988, most countries have little discretion over how they manage drug-taking. Other than for medical or scientific purposes, those that have signed up to the conventions—more than 140 countries to date, including nearly all of the rich world—must maintain the prohibition on the selling and possession of narcotics. Some are enthusiastic in their upholding of the treaties. But others have grown frustrated, and are finding ways of bending the rules.

For the past century the standard-bearer of the prohibition movement has been America, which imprisons more people for drug offences than any other country. But in 13 states the police are instructed not to arrest people for cannabis possession. In Europe, the coffee shops of Amsterdam famously sell cannabis alongside croissants. And other European countries are lenient about stronger drugs. Personal possession of any drug is not a criminal offence in Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Czech Republic or the Baltic states. Some German states and Swiss cantons are similarly relaxed, as are a few Australian states.

Decriminalization means that possessors may be stopped by the police but do not earn a criminal conviction, and that punishments are light: a fine in Spain, for instance, or suspension of one’s driving license in Italy. Drug-takers can escape even this unless aggravating circumstances apply, such as taking the drug in public or after repeated warnings.

The legal gymnastics that allow countries to soften their line in spite of the UN conventions are extraordinary.

A country must ensure that drug possession is a criminal, not civil, offence—but only “subject to its constitutional principles and the basic concepts of its legal system”. This caveat has allowed countries to treat drug possession as a civil matter. Further wriggle-room is given in the UN’s official commentary on the convention, which states that the spirit of the rule is the “improvement of the efficacy of national criminal justice systems in the field of drug-trafficking”. On this basis, countries may tell their police to turn a blind eye in the name of policing efficacy.

It is an embarrassing mess for the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which prefers to highlight Sweden, a country that has implemented strict drug laws and can claim some success in its quest for a “drug-free society”. In Sweden possession of any banned drug, including cannabis, earns a criminal record and sometimes a jail sentence (albeit one with an emphasis on treatment). Many countries have such laws in theory, but Sweden carries them out: most of its prosecutions for drug offences are for mere possession, rather than dealing. A report from the UNODC in 2007 highlighted the country’s lowest levels of drug use compared with elsewhere in Europe, and praised recent falls in consumption. Sweden has a below-average number of “problem” drug users too, though there is less in it, suggesting that the main effect of harsh laws may be to deter casual pot-smokers rather than to prevent serious addiction. Should other countries follow Sweden’s example?

A different UN agency suggests not. A survey last year by the World Health Organization examined drug-taking in 17 countries and found no link between the strictness of prohibition and the amount of drug consumption. (The lenient Netherlands, interestingly, has one of the lowest rates of “problem” drug use in Europe.) “Countries with more stringent policies did not have lower levels of such drug use than countries with more liberal policies,” the researchers concluded. For every strict regime like Sweden, there is another such as Britain or America where a tough approach co-exists with widespread drug use. Drug-taking was more closely linked to being wealthy, single and male than anything else, the researchers found.