What is decriminalisation of drugs?


Depenalisation, decriminalisation and legalisation. These terms are often used in the debate on how to control the supply and use of drugs. There is no universal agreement on these terms, but it is helpful to explore the different ideas behind them if we are to better understand their meaning. Let’s start by considering that there are
different possible levels of offences: They range from no offence, all the way to
a criminal offence, which is usually punished. These levels of offences may be separated into behaviours that are usually prohibited and behaviours that are usually permitted. The first term we’ll look at is ‘depenalisation’. This is where something that was a criminal
offence that was usually punished, is changed to where it remains a criminal offence, but
now there is a mechanism deciding that it is usually no longer punished. The case may be closed or suspended; it may
be considered minor, or it may be decided that it is not in the public interest to prosecute. Then we have the term decriminalisation. This is usually used when the status of an
offence is reclassified from criminal to non-criminal within a country’s legal framework. It is still an offence, it is still prohibited
behaviour, which will be stopped by the police and punished, but it’s no longer considered
criminal. A simple example of this status is a parking
ticket. Bad parking is an offence, which is prohibited
and punished, but it may not be considered criminal. Both ‘depenalisation’ and ‘decriminalisation’
refer to changes in legal status, and are often used to describe possible options for
changing a country’s response to offences related to drug use. The third term often used for changes in drug
laws is legalisation. We apply this term to the supply of drugs,
and we use it to describe a move from a prohibited behaviour (whether criminal or not) to a permitted
behaviour. Legalised supply may be not an offence in
defined circumstances. We call this regulation and in Europe, that
is the case for alcohol and tobacco where there are specific rules to regulate supply – such
as an age limit for buyers and a licence for sellers. If there are no specific rules on limits to
supply, we are talking about a free market. This is for example the case for selling goods
such as coffee, although general rules for consumer products will still apply. The important thing about an act of legalisation
is that it crosses the line from prohibited to permitted behaviour, which depenalisation
and decriminalisation do not do.


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