Drug policies have traditionally focused on the principle of deterrence, through laws prohibiting the production, distribution and use of drugs and imposing severe punishments on those involved in the drug trade. It was believed that the threat of such punishment would reduce, and eventually eliminate the global drug market. It has now been widely acknowledged that this approach has failed to reduce the scale of the drug market and has led to serious negative consequences. These include, among other harms, the imposition of highly disproportionate penalties on low-level offenders (including the use of the death penalty), prison overcrowding, compulsory detention for people who use drugs in the name of treatment, etc.

In light of these conclusions, a number of countries have reviewed their drug laws in an effort to reduce harms and ensure more proportionality in sentencing for drug offences. These have included:

  • A reduction of sentences and a review of prosecution guidelines to ensure better proportionality in sentencing according to people’s level and motivation for involvement in the drug market, as well as compared to other crimes (such as rape and murder)
  • The promulgation of amnesties in countries where large numbers of people were incarcerated for minor drug offences
  • The decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use to ensure that people who use drugs have access to the health and social services they need without fear of arrest
  • The legal regulation of cannabis, in an effort to move away from a criminal market towards legal and improved forms of control.