Drugs, crime and punishment - Proportionality of sentencing for drug offences

18 June 2012

Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 20

Proportionality is one of the key principles of the rule of law aiming to protect people from cruel or inhumane treatment. The principle has been established in interna­tional and regional human rights agree­ments and many countries have adopted reflections of it in their constitution or penal code. Its applica­tion to drug-related offences is firstly the responsibility of the legislators, in defining the level of penalisa­tion of certain behaviours. The level of penalisation should be deter­mined according to the severity of damage that a certain behaviour causes to others or to society.

In the second instance, the courts and judges have to apply the principle of proportionality in defining the appropriate punishment for a particular case; and finally, proportionality also plays a role in the execu­tion of this punishment. This briefing paper looks at specific criteria of proportionality developed in the context of drug control and describes a number of recent attempts to recalibrate the often grossly disproportionate nature of current drug laws and their enforce­ment around the world.

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