Political reluctance to reform drug laws has been clearly demonstrated in recent years in the United Kingdom. Despite international evidence that rates of drug use are not directly affected by harsher punishment of drug users (and pressure from multiple advocates), the British Government has firmly opposed any move towards decriminalization.
Politicians have warned that decriminalization of cannabis would ‘send the wrong message’ Some researchers have supported this argument, arguing that removing criminal penalties would lead to increased drug use, with harms falling hardest on the deprived communities that are already the most damaged by drug-related problems.
However, most public arguments are based on speculation rather than the available evidence on effects. The predominance of speculation over evidence can be attributed to a number of factors. First, the United Nations conventions on illicit drugs require that nation states prohibit illicit drug cultivation, manufacturing, sale and possession. They therefore limit the possibility of experimentation with alternative modes of regulation. There is some ‘room for manoeuvre’, as shown by the use of various forms of decriminalization and depenalization in the United States, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands.
A second limit to the use of evidence in debates over drug regulation is the limited and variable evidence surrounding the impacts of these existing forms of liberalization. Where reforms that have been studied, different methods and approaches have been used. To date, the major focus of analysis has been whether decriminalization leads to increases in the prevalence of drug use. Most studies have found there are no significant increases in use. Others have found a slight increase. Still others have shown how difficult it is to make any certain judgment on the effects of decriminalization on drug use, given the absence of adequate comparators. Social and criminal justice impacts have also been mixed.
One of the best studied reforms has been the South Australian cannabis expiation notice scheme introduced in 1987. Evaluators found that ‘decriminalization’ led to increased employment prospects and increased trust of police. Yet, it also led to net-widening. More people received formal contact with the criminal justice system than prior to the reform. In fact, there was a 280 per cent increase in expiable cannabis offences, which meant there was an overall increase in the burden on the criminal justice system.
The most comprehensive synthetic review of the impacts of the decriminalization of illicit drugs has been conducted by MacCoun and Reuter (2001a), using data from the Netherlands, United States, Australia and Italy. They concluded that the removal of criminal penalties appeared to produce positive but slight impacts. The primary impact was reducing the burden and cost in the criminal justice system. This also reduced the intrusiveness of criminal justice responses to users.
The removal of criminal penalties alone had little or no impact on the prevalence of drug use or drug-related health harms. The extent of additional use depended rather on the extent to which there was commercial promotion. They used the example of the Netherlands, where the rise in cannabis use did not immediately follow its depenalization, but coincided with the development of ‘coffee shops’ that openly promoted their illicit wares.