No apparent link between ‘toughness’ of drug laws and use, says Home Office report

There is ‘no apparent correlation’ between the toughness of a country’s approach to drugs and levels of use, according to a Home Office study of international drugs policies.  

Drugs: international comparators reviewed different approaches ‘in policymaking and on the ground’ based on a series of fact-finding missions between May 2013 and March this year. Ministers and Home Office officials visited Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, the US and Uruguay, looking at a range of issues including decriminalisation of possession for personal use, consumption rooms, heroin-assisted treatment, drug courts and supply-side regulation of cannabis. 

‘Without exception, every country we considered sees drug use as undesirable,’ says the document, and while all were ‘taking steps to disrupt, reduce, or regulate supply’ there was a ‘variety of responses to the individual user’. In terms of the effectiveness of drug laws, researchers studied Portugal, which removed criminal sanctions for personal use in 2001 and the Czech Republic, where possession of small quantities is treated as an administrative offence punishable with a fine. They also looked at Japan, which operates a ‘zero tolerance’ policy with possession of even small amounts of drugs attracting lengthy prison sentences and Sweden, whose approach to possession ‘has grown stricter over several decades’. 

‘While levels of drug use in Portugal appear to be relatively low, reported levels of cannabis use in the Czech Republic are among the highest in Europe,’ says the report. ‘Indicators of levels of drug use in Sweden, which has one of the toughest approaches we saw, point to relatively low levels of use, but not markedly lower than countries with different approaches.’ 

The report discusses evidence of ‘improved health prospects’ for drug users in Portugal, with the caveat that these ‘cannot be attributed to decriminalisation alone’ and adds that it is unclear whether decriminalisation ‘reduces the burden on the police’, with Portugal’s resourcing at similar levels after decriminalisation as before. The country has, however, reduced the proportion of drug-related offenders in its prison population, says the report. 

The document acknowledges that ‘what works in one country may not be appropriate in another’, and states that ‘the legislative and enforcement approach to drug possession is only one strand of any country’s response to drug misuse’, which is also informed by wider social and cultural factors. It also stresses that there is ‘robust evidence that drug use among adults has been on a downward trend in England and Wales since the mid-2000s’ and that the UK’s ‘balanced approach enables targeted demand-reduction activity, and good availability and quality of treatment. Indeed, while in Portugal, we were encouraged to hear that drug treatment in the UK is well-regarded internationally.’

In terms of supply-side regulation of cannabis the document states that the policies in Uruguay and the US are ‘highly experimental’, with no evidence so far to ‘indicate whether or not they will be successful in reducing the criminality associated with the drug trade’. 

‘The differences between the approach other countries have taken illustrate the complexity of the challenge, and demonstrate why we cannot simply adopt another country’s approach wholesale,’ said crime prevention minister Norman Baker, who had accused Conservative colleagues of ‘suppressing’ the document, which had been ready for publication for a number of months. ‘The UK’s approach on drugs remains clear: we must prevent drug use in our communities, help dependent individuals through treatment and wider recovery support, while ensuring law enforcement protects society by stopping the supply and tackling the organised crime that is associated with the drugs trade.’

The Home Office has also published the findings of its expert panel study of new psychoactive substances (NPS), and the government’s response, which includes plans for a blanket ban similar to that introduced in Ireland in 2010, improved training for NHS staff and new PHE guidance for local authorities on integrating NPS into treatment, education and prevention work. 

Drugs: international comparators; New psychoactive substances in England: a review of the evidence, and Government response to new psychoactive substances review expert panel report at