Drug policy reform

Relative harm assessment of various drugs from the scientific journal The Lancet[1]

Drug policy reform, also known as drug law reform, is a term used to describe proposed changes to the way most governments respond to the socio-cultural influence on perception of psychoactive substance use. Proponents of drug policy reform believe that prohibition of drugs—such as cannabis, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines and hallucinogens—has been ineffectual and counterproductive. They argue that rather than using laws and enforcement as the primary means to responding to substance use, governments and citizens would be better served by reducing harm and regulating the production, marketing and distribution of currently illegal drugs in a manner similar to (or some would say better than) how alcohol and tobacco are regulated.

Proponents of drug law reform argue that relative harm should be taken into account in the scheduling of controlled substances. Addictive drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and caffeine have been a traditional part of Western culture for centuries and are legal, when in fact the first two are more harmful than some substances scheduled under Schedule I.[2][3][4] The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the U.S. Center for Disease Control, rated the hallucinogen psilocybin (Schedule I) less toxic than Aspirin.[3] The Dutch government found this also to be true.[4] The addictive properties of the drug nicotine in tobacco are often compared with heroin or cocaine,[5] but tobacco is legal, even though the World Health Organization (WHO) in the 2002 World Health Report estimates that in developed countries, 26% of male deaths and 9% of female deaths can be attributed to tobacco smoking.[2] According to the American Heart Association, "Nicotine addiction has historically been one of the hardest addictions to break." The pharmacologic and behavioral characteristics that determine tobacco addiction are similar to those that determine addiction to drugs such as heroin and cocaine.[5]


History of drug policy reform

Initial attempts to change the punitive drug laws which were introduced all over the world from the late 1800s onwards were primarily based around recreational use. Timothy Leary was one of the most prominent campaigners for the legal and recreational use of LSD. In 1967, a "Legalise pot" rally was held in Britain.[6]

However, as death toll from the drug war rose, other organisations began to form to campaign on a more political and humanitarian basis. The Drug Policy Foundation formed in America and Release, a charity which gives free legal advice to drugs users and currently campaigns for drug decriminalization, also incorporated in the 1970s.

Today, the focus of the world's drug policy reform organisations is on the promotion of harm reduction in the Western World, and attempting to prevent the catastrophic loss of human life in developing countries where much of the world's supply of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana are produced. Drug policy reform advocates points to efforts such as the Mexican Drug War, which has claimed some 36,000 lives, as signs that a new approach to drug policy is needed.

Proposed Alternatives

Harm reduction

Harm reduction refers to a range of public health policies designed to reduce the harmful consequences associated with recreational drug use and other high risk activities. Harm reduction is put forward as a useful perspective alongside the more conventional approaches of demand and supply reduction.[7]

Many advocates argue that prohibitionist laws criminalize people for suffering from a disease and cause harm, for example by obliging drug addicts to obtain drugs of unknown purity from unreliable criminal sources at high prices, increasing the risk of overdose and death.[8] Its critics are concerned that tolerating risky or illegal behaviour sends a message to the community that these behaviours are acceptable.[9][10]


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 [11], meaning anyone caught with any type of drug, if its for consumption, will not be imprisoned. However, Mexico City has decriminalized certain drugs and Greece has just announced that it is going to do so.[citation needed]


Drug 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:[12]

  • 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),[13] 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.[14]

Groups advocating change

The Senlis Council, a European development and policy thinktank, has, since it conception in 2002, advocated that drug addiction should be viewed as a public health issue rather than a purely criminal matter. The group does not support the decriminalisation of illegal drugs. Since 2003, the Council has called for the licensing of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in order to manufacture poppy-based medicines, such as morphine and codeine, and to combat poverty in rural communities, breaking ties with the illicit drugs trade. The Senlis Council outlined proposals for the implementation of a village based poppy for medicine project and calls for a pilot project for Afghan morphine at the next planting season.[15]

Organisations involved in lobbying, research and advocacy



United States

Political parties with drug law reform policies

See also


  1. ^ Nutt, D.; King, L. A.; Saulsbury, W.; Blakemore, C. (2007). "Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse". The Lancet 369 (9566): 1047–1053. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)60464-4. PMID 17382831.  edit
  2. ^ a b World health report 2002: reducing risks, promoting healthy life
  3. ^ a b The Good Drugs Guide. "Magic Mushrooms–Frequently Asked Questions". Frequently Asked Questions. The Good Drugs Guide. http://www.thegooddrugsguide.com/mushrooms/faq.htm#01. Retrieved 2007-01-04. 
  4. ^ a b Report by the Dutch Government Stating Psilocybin's Relative Harmlessness
  5. ^ a b American Heart Association and Nicotine addiction.
  6. ^ "A history of drug prohibition and a prediction for its abolition and replacement". Transform Drug Policy Foundation. http://www.tdpf.org.uk/Policy_Timeline.htm. Retrieved 30/08/11. 
  7. ^ Marlatt, G. Alan (2002). "Highlights of Harm Reduction". Harm Reduction: Pragmatic Strategies for Managing High-Risk Behaviors. Guilford Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-57230-825-1. http://books.google.com/books?id=n-XmJZ5cvnwC&pg=PA3. 
  8. ^ Inciardi, James A.; Harrison, Lana D. (2000). Harm reduction: national and international perspectives. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE. pp. vii–viii. 
  9. ^ "INCB 2001 Annual Report - Oceania". p. 559. https://www.incb.org/pdf/e/ar/2001/incb_report_2001_3_oceania.pdf. Retrieved 2010-03-28. 
  10. ^ "Anger as Vice Girls Get Free Condoms". http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1P2-17571220.html. Retrieved 2010-04-20. 
  11. ^ http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html
  12. ^ After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (12 Nov 2009)
  13. ^ Tobacco regulation: Saving livings vs personal freedom, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (3 Feb 2010)
  14. ^ Reformers and not 'pro-drug' Mr Costa, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (7 Dec 2009)
  15. ^ "Poppy for Medicine" (June 2007)
  16. ^ American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Accessed 2010-02-15
  17. ^ LEAP
  18. ^ NORML
  19. ^ Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. Drug Law Reform Policy - Towards a Harm Reduction Model Accessed 2010-02-15

External links

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