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Drug Decriminalisation: Progress or Political Red Herring?

12 APRIL, 2021

Over the past decade there have been increasing claims that the world is moving towards a critical turning point in international drug policy, based on a growing recognition that governments must consider alternative approaches to drug policy which include decriminalisation. While this shift has been hailed as a sign of progress by many, INPUD believes there are still important and overlooked questions regarding the extent to which the needs and rights of people who use drugs are being prioritised in countries that have decriminalised drug use.

INPUD is excited to present Drug Decriminalisation: Progress or Political Red Herring? This report, like our previous report on Portugal, is intended to open up the debate on decriminalisation and make clear the expectations people who use drugs have for future action on drug policy reform. Most importantly, it includes a call for full decriminalisation without sanctions as the new baseline for measuring progress on decriminalisation in the future. 

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Decriminalisation is often discussed as if there is only one model, leading to a view that decriminalisation anywhere equals progress. However, there are many different models of decriminalisation in operation, all with different impacts. This report was published because we believe current reforms have not gone far enough. In the overwhelming majority of countries, people who use drugs continue to be criminalised, punished, and stigmatised despite decriminalisation. Furthermore, no existing reviews of decriminalisation models have specifically included the perspective of people who use drugs in their analysis, a glaring oversight which reflects the historical exclusion of the voices of people who use drugs within policy discussions. 

INPUD believes it is time to disrupt the misconception that decriminalisation unquestionably represent progress when policies have been developed with little or no consultation with people who use drugs. This report amplifies the voices of the community through a series of interviews conducted with peers in countries which have implemented various approaches to decriminalisation. Our hope is this report can support peer-led advocacy efforts towards more inclusive, progressive, participatory and transparent drug policies which fully recognise the human dignity of all people who use drugs. 

Watch INPUD Executive Director Judy Chang break down key findings and recommendations from the report.

INPUD would like to pay a special thanks to all of the peers who provided their thoughts and guidance in this research. We are also grateful for the financial report we received from Bridging the Gaps, the Robert Carr Civil Society Networks Fun and the Love Alliance. 

Based on the findings from this study INPUD has drawn the following primary recommendations from this report:

1. All models of decriminalisation must fully decriminalise people who use drugs, including: the removal of all administrative sanctions and mechanisms of monitoring, surveillance, coercion and punishment for use and possession of drugs; removing the use of arbitrary quantity thresholds or threshold amounts that result in criminal records; ensuring that operational police fully understand policy and legislative changes associated with full decriminalisation; and establishing independent and ongoing monitoring for criminal justice systems.

2. People who use drugs and their community-led organisations must be involved in all stages of the reform process, including the provision of clear, accessible and credible information to community on any policy or legal changes.

3. Full decriminalisation must also include specific strategies to end stigma and discrimination among people who drugs and ensure adequate funding for such interventions.

4. Full decriminalisation must include scale-up and expansion of access to harm reduction and social care for people who use drugs relevant to the local context and needs.

5. Once full decriminalisation is adopted within jurisdictions, it should only be as a step along a continuum that has as its clear and ultimate goal the full legal regulation of all drugs in a timely manner.