Countries That Have Decriminalized Drugs

By Victoria Simpson on August 4 2020 in Society

Advocates for the legalization of marijuana march at the annual NYC Cannabis Parade, New York, US. Image credit: rblfmr/Shutterstock
  • Over 25 countries around the world have decriminalized drugs to some degree, including Portugal, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Germany.
  • In the US, marijuana use is decriminalized in some states, but it is still illegal at the federal level, making it difficult for marijuana-related businesses to set up shop.
  • Countries that have decriminalized drugs have seen disease rates drop as well as deaths from overdose.

The legalization of drugs: the topic is full of controversies and never-ending arguments. On the one hand, those against legalizing dangerous street drugs say it could potentially result in more people accessing them and developing drug dependencies, as well as overdosing, which could obviously grow into a heavy problem for governments and communities to have to deal with. On the other hand, the illegal drug trade now results in so much violence and problematic behavior around the world, and its criminalization actively prevents users from accessing the health support they need to quit, causing preventable deaths to the point where this risk may outweigh the negative possibilities. 

Drugs like cocaine, marijuana, and heroin have been decriminalized in numerous countries. To date, these include somewhere between 25 and 30 countries

By taking a closer look at the results found in these places we can learn what does not work, and what does, in the quest for a safer, healthier world. Here is what has happened in a handful of places around the globe where drugs have been decriminalized. 

4. Czech Republic

The Czech flag. Image credit: Lukasz Stefanski/Shutterstock

Decriminalizing drug use has come with some benefits. According to UNAIDS, the United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS, in countries that have decriminalized drugs and also put in harm reduction measures, the rate of HIV among people who use drugs has dropped drastically. The Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland are among the countries that have experienced this. 

People in the Czech Republic are the only group in Eastern Europe to now have reduced punishments in connection with drug use. When the Communist regime collapsed, it was no longer a criminal offense to possess drugs, but there were and are some rules surrounding them. It is still illegal to produce and sell drugs in the Czech Republic. And you cannot possess large amounts of drugs. People who are caught with small amounts of drugs for personal use are charged with a misdemeanor and a fine of up to 15,000 Czech koruna which is about US$612.

One major issue in the Czech Republic has been trying to establish in courts what constitutes a small amount of drugs and what is too much. 

3. Argentina

The Argentinian flag. Image credit: Vladimir Sukhachev/Shutterstock

Back in 2009, Argentina decriminalized the personal use of marijuana. People can now use marijuana in private in this country without facing criminal charges, as long as it does not constitute a clear danger, the courts ruled. 

Argentina is also discussing decriminalizing other drugs for personal use, but has yet to do so. People with drug violations are currently the second largest group in prison and they have increased at a higher rate in numbers in recent years. 

Officials from the Latin American Institute of Security and Democracy (Instituto Latinoamericano de Seguridad y Democracia – ILSED) have said that decriminalizing the use of drugs is a key move for countries in Latin America, as it frees up government resources to better focus on getting the larger criminals—the traffickers and others operating in organized crime—in prison. 

2. Germany

A german police officer. Image credit: Pradeep Thomas Thundiyil/Shutterstock

Drugs have been decriminalized in Germany since the 1990s. As in the Czech Republic, you can possess drugs for personal use in Germany without going to jail. People who want to deal in narcotics in this country can do so legally but only with a license issued from the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices. Those who deal drugs illegally will be punished as a criminal. 

In order to help oversee drug users and to make the activity safer for addicts, Germany has set up drug consumption rooms. Addicts bring their own drugs, and are given access to tools like clean needles that allow them to use drugs in a hygienic environment. This reduces their chances of becoming infected and infecting others with diseases.

1. Portugal

The Portuguese flag. Image credit: vepar5/Shutterstock

In the 1980s and 1990s, people in Portugal faced a high rate of drug use. The country grew to be in crisis, with one in ten people using heroin at the height of the problem. Desperate to change the situation, illicit substances were decriminalized in Portugal in 2001. This made the country the first in the world to do so, across the board. People caught possessing drugs were warned and given a small fine or told they needed to appear in front of a local commission. This would place the user in contact with people like doctors, lawyers and social workers who would assist them in seeking drug treatment and harm reduction services. 

The result? People in Portugal have since seen a huge drop in problematic drug use, and infections related to it like HIV, and hepatitis are going down. There are also fewer people dying from overdoses, and being incarcerated for drug use and associated crimes. Decriminalization in Portugal is working.

Countries That Have Decriminalized Drugs

CountryDecriminalized activitiesSanctions
Antigua and BarbudaCannabis possession inferior to 15gPotential confiscation without penalty, fines and criminal charges for over 15g
ArgentinaPossession of any drug, cultivation of cannabisConfiscation of drugs, fine, referral to an educational course
ArmeniaPossession or social supplay of any drugConfiscation of drugs, fine or voluntary treatment
BelizeCannabis possession inferior to 10gNo sanction for adults, minors are required to participate in counselling programs
BoliviaPossession of coca (leaf), social supply of any drugNo sanctions for possession under the legal threshold
ChilePossession of any drug, cultivation of cannabisNo sanctions for private, personal use, fines for public consumption, supplying
ColombiaPossession of any drug, cultivation of cannabisNo sanctions for private, personal use, fines for public consumption, supplying
Costa RicaPossession of any drug, cultivation of cannabisConfiscation of drugs, voluntary referral to treatment (mandatory for minors)
CroatiaPossession of any drug for personal useConfiscation of drugs, mandatory treatment
Czech RepublicPossession of any drug, cultivation of cannabisConfiscation of drugs, fine
EstoniaPossession of any drug for personal useConfiscation of drugs, fine, voluntary treatment
GermanyPossession of any drug for personal useNo sanctions for possession under the legal threshold
ItalyPossession of any drug, cultivation and social supply of cannabisConfiscation of drugs, warning, fine, voluntary referal to treatment
JamaicaPossession and cultivation of cannabisNo sanction for medicinal or religious use, fine and referral to an educational course
MexicoPossession of any drug, cultivation of cannabisVoluntary referral to treatment, mandatory after the third infraction. No charges under legal threshold
NetherlandsPossession of any drug, cultivation of cannabisNo sanctions for possession under the legal threshold
ParaguayPossession of any drug for personal useNo sanctions for possession under the legal threshold
PeruPossession of any drug for personal useNo sanctions for possession under the legal threshold
PolandPossession of any drug for personal useFine, referral to an educational course, voluntary referral to treatment
PortugalPossession of any drug for personal useConfiscation of drugs, fine, referral to an educational course
RussiaPossession of any drug for personal useFine, voluntary referral to treatment, "administrative detention" of up to 15 days
South AfricaPossession and cultivation of cannabisNo sanctions
SpainPossession of any drug, cultivation of cannabisNo sactions for private use, fines for public possession and use
SwitzerlandPossession of any drug, cultivation of cannabisNo sanctions for less than 10g of cannabis, fines, voluntary referral to harm reduction services
UruguayPossession of any drug, cultivation of cannabisNo sanctions for possession under the legal threshold
Virgin IslandsPossession of cannabisConfiscation of drugs, fine

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