10 December 2012
Benoit Gomis

Benoît Gomis

Associate Fellow, International Security (based in Toronto)


Much of the media coverage of the UK Home Affairs Select Committee report, Drugs: Breaking the Cycle, has so far focused on one policy recommendation: the need for 'significantly closer consideration' of the Portuguese model of depenalization. Portugal passed a law in 2000 to establish Dissuasion Commissions to deal with those caught in possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use and dissuade them from taking drugs through education, referrals to treatment or civil sanctions for noncompliance.

The Portuguese model has been successful in reducing harms and diseases associated with drugs, in particular heroin (between 2000-08, the incidence of HIV and AIDS among drug users was divided by 4.5 and 5 respectively). In addition, it has demonstrated that removing the moral stigma of excessive criminalization can have powerful advantages for drug users, especially when associated with effective public health measures to treat drug addicts. Importantly, consumption levels in Portugal have not increased in the past decade, despite the relaxation of drug laws. 

The need for a more comprehensive policy response

However, consumption is just one element of the drug problem. A number of externalities are created along the drug supply chain, including production, transit and consumption. From the opium crops of the Golden Triangle (Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) or the coca fields of Latin America, through the trade routes and onto the streets of many cities across the world, the whole process affects a significant number of people, and has substantial environmental, security, economic and medical ramifications across the world. 

Although the parliamentary report describes this problem quite well, it only suggests that the government 'continue to factor this unintended consequence into considerations on drug policy', or urges for more cooperation with European and international partners. But such a global and wide-ranging problem requires a comprehensive strategy. 

First, a broader perspective on consumption is required. Policy should incorporate a broader definition of drugs, tackling not only illicit drugs, but also other psychoactive and addictive substances such as alcohol, prescription or over-the-counter medicine, and legal highs. Crucially, it should address the broader socio-economic context in which problematic consumption develops, striving to empower individuals suffering from a drug problem, and tackling the social marginalization caused or reinforced by their drug use. The parliamentary report highlights some effective initiatives at a local level in this regard but further progress will be needed for this to have an impact at the policy level.

Second, the need for cross-government approaches. For example, decriminalization of drug possession must be combined with a policy adjustment with regard to related activities of law enforcement and drug production. Similarly and as evident in Mexico, drugs is only one revenue stream of organized crime enterprises, and successes against drug trafficking can only have substantial effects across society when combined with efforts to strengthen institutions including judiciary, health, and economic and social. 

Thirdly, international diplomacy is integral to drug policy. Ineffective measures have violated human rights by taking livelihoods and criminalizing poor and marginalized populations. As the report states, the government should 'ensure that no British or European funding is used to support practices that could lead to capital punishment, torture, or other violations.'

Fourthly, a more rigorous approach to impact assessment and policy evaluation must be established to understand the positive and negative consequences policies may have, and whether change on the ground can be linked back to policies. In such a polarized field with such strong pressures for status quo (e.g. political reputation, media reactions, international conventions), this could be an effective way for policy to trump politics.

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Project on Drugs and Organized Crime