Accessibility Links
Quick Send CV
Cookies on our website
By continuing to use this website we will assume you are happy to receive cookies as outlined in our cookie policy
Accept Policy

With recent government reports stating there is “no obvious” link between rigorous law and the levels of illegal drug use, we thought we’d explore the subject a bit further. 

Understandably, the study initiated by the Home Office, has created a fierce political debate. We’re not surprised; after all, it’s the first time the government has hinted at the virtues of decriminalising drugs. The focus for years has been to punish those in possession of drugs. Under current UK laws, offenders can be jailed for up to seven years for possessing Class A drugs, and can be jailed for life for producing or supplying drugs.

We would be surprised if this was to change anytime soon, but the report does question the relationship between the severity of a country’s drug enforcement and levels of drug use within that country. This will place the UK’s current laws for punishing those in possession of drugs under greater scrutiny. 

On the face of it, the majority of the general public will see decriminalisation as counter-intuitive with the view that the threat of punishment should be enough of a deterrent. However, those people we recruit in the field of substance misuse will have their own views on this somewhat ‘blanket assumption’. 

There were 14 countries reported to have been included within the Home Office report, all with varying degrees of punishment for the possession and use of drugs. 

By far the majority of the reports in the media have centred on Portugal and its drugs policy. 

In 2001, Portugal experienced a HIV epidemic following an increase in the number of intravenous drug users. The response from the government there was to remove all criminal penalties for drug use. Instead, they were sent to a panel of professionals where they were referred to treatment. Those who were infront of the panel again inside of six months were made to pay a fine. There wasn’t an anticipated drop in overall drug use following decriminalisation. It was only in 2012 that the figures started to drop with fewer people taking drugs. Interestingly though, the level of problem drug use fell much more drastically. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), there were almost 100 new drug related HIV cases per million people in Portugal in 2001. This was down to just five by 2012. The rate of HIV dropped by almost 95% in just over a decade, with it being reported that Portugal’s heroin problem had halved. 

Of course, it would be extremely difficult to attribute the trends in Portugal purely to decriminalisation.We talk with substance misuse professionals on a daily basis. We understand that the treatment and care of those with addiction issues is complicated and very much driven by individual circumstances and societal pressures. It is, however, very interesting to explore how other countries are treating the possession, use and production of illegal drugs.


Drug possession is considered a minor offense but punishment can be severe. Those addicted to drugs are often sent to compulsory detoxification centres for up to three years with an additional three years of ‘community rehabilitation’. 
Importing, exporting or manufacturing 1,000 grams or more of opium and 50 grams of more of heroin can lead to a death sentence.

Czech Republic

The police, as is the case in Portugal, cannot arrest people for the possession of small quantities of drugs, yet the figures for cannabis usage between the two countries is starkly different. The percentage of young people having used cannabis in their lifetime is more than twice as high amongst Czechs at 27.6 per cent, according to 2012 EMCDDA data.


Ireland’s tolerance is very similar to the UK, although it has been quick to lead the way on controlling the sale of ‘legal highs’, banning all ‘psychoactive’ substances in 2010.


Japan is known to have the toughest drug laws in the developed world.  Its Pharmaceutical Affairs Law bans the production and sale of 68 types of drugs. Its zero-tolerance policy means its criminal consequences are tougher than the UK. Drug use in Japan is reported to be low.


The Netherlands is known amongst tourists as a location to go to for cannabis. Possession remains illegal but police and courts operate a policy of tolerance. Although, importing and exporting any classified drug is a serious offence, with penalties running up to 16 years for hard drugs and a maximum of four years for importing or exporting significant quantities of cannabis. 


In Sweden, both use and possession are illegal. Even minor use can lead to a prison sentence of six months. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that Sweden has one of the lowest drug usage rates in the Western world. The reasons it gives for this is that it has a drug policy that strikes a balance between treating the problem and punitive punishment.


Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalise marijuana in 2013. It’s reported that 10 per cent of the country’s prison population is incarcerated for small drug offences with 44% of all drug cases attributed to those holding less than 10g of drugs. New laws allow an individual to buy up to 40g a month from pharmacies.


In 2012 Washington State and Colorado legalised the recreational use of cannabis. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow the use of medical marijuana on prescription.
Email a friend
Add new comment