Drug Decriminalisation: The New Norm or Stepping Stone to Legalisation?

10th December 2020

When voters in the USA took to the polls in November, many were heading out to choose more than just who was going to be the next President. In fact, this US election day represented the most significant single-day victory for cannabis and drug reform to date.

In addition to a number of states opting to legalise medical or recreational (or both – here’s to you, South Dakota) cannabis, the decriminalisation of all drugs in Oregon made headlines around the world. While Oregon is the first US state to take the plunge, the decriminalisation is becoming a hot topic in a growing number of countries.

In 2001, Portugal made history when it became the first country in the world to decriminalise all drugs. At the time, the policy change seemed radical and progressive – and it still does. Effectively, this approach moves the issue of drug use away from the criminal system and into the public health arena.

What is Decriminalisation?

Decriminalisation usually refers to a reduction of legal penalties – this may mean issuing civil penalties like fines instead of a criminal conviction. It can also divert drug use offenders into education and rehabilitation/treatment options.

This means that strain on police and the criminal justice system may be reduced and the stigma of criminal convictions removed from drug users.

In real-life cases – such as Portugal and Switzerland – decriminalisation only covers the personal possession of drugs. This means that the sale, supply, and cultivation of drugs remains a criminal offence. This is also true in countries and jurisdictions that have decriminalised specific drugs – most commonly, cannabis.

Is the Decriminalisation of Cannabis a Stepping Stone?

While only a small handful of countries have thus far decided to extend decriminalisation to all drugs, a significant number have decriminalised the personal possession and use of cannabis. These countries include the Netherlands, Australia, Costa Rica, Chile, Mexico, and many more!

However, some may see the decriminalisation of cannabis as a stepping stone to the decriminalisation of further drugs. It could be said that this is what happened in Oregon, USA. Oregon became the first US state to decriminalise cannabis in 1973 and followed with the legalisation of medical cannabis in 1998. The use of recreational cannabis was legalised in 2014. Oregon has now set another landmark by becoming the first state to decriminalise all drugs.

Decriminalisation to Legalisation?

Decriminalisation has also been seen to precede legalisation in changing policies on drug use. The best example of this can be seen in state law in the USA. While cannabis remains illegal at the federal level in the USA, state cannabis laws have been becoming increasingly progressive for decades.

In many cases, states have first chosen to decriminalise the drug before later progressing to the legalisation of medical and/or recreational cannabis. Examples include Oregon (as previously stated), California – where recreational cannabis was decriminalised in 1975 and legalised or medical and recreational by 2016.

Many other states that have decriminalised recreational cannabis have also legalised, including Alaska, Ohio, Maine, Washington, and Colorado. New York, where recreational cannabis use was partially decriminalised in 1977, has also seen an increase in attempts to legalised in recent years.

While decriminalisation has become an effective approach to drug policy in its own right, it continues to have critics. While this approach may divert people from the criminal justice system to appropriate healthcare, it doesn’t address the issue of criminal drug supply networks and the black market.

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