​We Asked an Expert What Would Happen If the UK Decriminalized All Drugs

The UN was apparently about to release a report advising exactly that this week before suddenly changing its mind.

by Joe Goodman
Oct 22 2015, 4:50pm

Illustration by Sam Taylor

Thanks to polymath and biopic-waiting-to-happen Richard Branson, we know that, this week, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime was in the final stages of preparing a call for the global decriminalization of drugs. According to the report, evidence suggests decriminalization would reduce the number of drug-related deaths without increasing incidents of drug abuse. Therefore, the document suggests, governments have a duty to change policy to suit the best interests of their citizens.

So far, so sensible.

Sadly, four days later, Branson's leaked document remains unreleased, presumably thanks to the "one government putting an inordinate amount of pressure on the UNODC [not to release the report]" that Branson mentioned in his statement. Shame. For now, it looks like we'll just have to hold out for a world where drug possession runs separate to the criminal system. But while we wait, there's nothing to stop us imagining.

I spoke to Professor Alex Stevens, President of the International Society of the Study of Drug Policy, to find out what the UK would look like if drugs were decriminalized tomorrow.

Photo by Michael Segalov

VICE: First off, if drugs were decriminalized in the UK, would we see people shooting up on every street corner?
Alex Stevens: No. The effects of decriminalization of drugs would not be as dramatic as many people assume. Those countries that have decriminalized drugs have not seen increases in drug use any more than countries that haven't decriminalized drugs. The actual effect of it is only to take away the criminal penalty from people who are caught in possession. So, for example, in Portugal they decriminalized drugs, but there are still administrative procedures and penalties that drug users can be put through—it's just that it doesn't lead to a criminal sanction or criminal record.

What about dealers—would we see people meeting in the middle of Pret during their lunch break rather than in a Passat down a little side road?
No, because dealing would still be illegal. Decriminalization of drugs focuses on the decriminalization of the possession of drugs, not the decriminalization of the supply of drugs. That's one of the problems of decriminalization—that it leaves intact the illegal market, the organized crime, the huge flow of money out of the illegal economy, and the incentives for violence that are created in the illegal crime market.

But say the UK decriminalized drugs—surely our legal economy would benefit from all the drug tourists?
When they decriminalized drugs in Portugal, one of the fears was that the country would be flooded with drug tourists, but that's not been the case—partly because it's still illegal to sell. It has been more the case in Amsterdam, where businesses have been allowed to operate selling cannabis to foreigners. Amsterdam's done quite well out of that; it's made a lot of money out of those tourists. But with regards the UK, there's no reason decriminalization alone without legalization would lead to drug tourism.

Right. So what would actually happen if you were caught in possession under decriminalization?
It depends very much on the details of the country and the situation, but normally, under decriminalization, it would mean the police would just confiscate whatever you had. At the moment, there's a thing called the cannabis caution, which is a caution that can be conditional on a person attending a drug awareness course. So you could just expand that system to confiscate that substance and say, "As long as you go along to that drugs awareness course, there'll be no further action taken against you."

What about the second time you got caught?
Again, it could be done in all sorts of ways. My preference would be for it to avoid you ever getting a criminal record. So you could have other sanctions in place, such as those associated with civil offenses, like parking fines. Parking fines at the moment are a civil offense; it's not a criminal offense, so you could give someone the equivalent of a parking fine if they didn't turn up at the awareness course.

How's it been done in other countries?
In 2001, Portugal introduced a new drugs policy, part of which was to decriminalize the possession of all substances if you had less than ten days' supply in your possession. So instead of being arrested and given a criminal record, you are referred to what's known as the Commission for the Dissuasion of Addiction, which is a panel made up of a lawyer, a social worker, and a psychologist.

In most cases they will assess you and say, "We don't need to do anything more with you because you don't have a problem, but we'll give you some health information about what damage you might be doing to yourself." In some cases, for people who are dependent on drugs, they can refer you to treatment. In cases of repeat offenses, they can post sanctions such as a fine or requiring you to register at a police station regularly. But the advantage of this is its stopped giving criminal records to people who were caught in the possession of drugs. Alongside that, they've increased the provision of treatment of harm reduction services, such as opiate substitution treatment and needle exchange services, and they've seen a massive reduction in the levels of HIV infections related to heroin use, and also reductions in drug-related deaths.

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What about all the people already in prison or with criminal records for their convictions prior to decriminalization?
That would be up to the particular country in question. My preference would be that people would no longer have to declare criminal records that related to drug possession because that isn't helping them and it isn't helping anyone else. The criminal record is often more damaging to a young person who is caught with drugs than the drugs that they are taking would be. They are more likely to stop using drugs fairly soon because most people stop using drugs fairly soon. But the criminal record stays with them for a lot longer and can damage their prospects.

For example, there's research in Australia looking at schemes that divert people from arrest for cannabis offenses. It shows that when people get diverted, nothing happens to them, whereas when people get arrested they can get a criminal record, their relationships can suffer and their employment prospects can suffer. But then the two groups are no less or more likely to use drugs in future. So the criminalization doesn't stop them using drugs, but it does harm their life prospects.

Either way, decriminalization would solve the problem of prison crowding, right?
Probably not. A large proportion of people in prisons are there for drug offenses, but most of them are there for supply or importation offenses The proportion of people in prison for drug possession [in the UK] is only in the hundreds, and the sentences tend to be reasonably short. Decriminalization of possession in this country [the UK] would therefore probably not have a major impact on the prison population.

What about hospitals—will they be full to the brim?
If there were no changes in prevalence of drug-taking, as we've seen elsewhere, then there's no reason to think there would be an increase in demand. What it might do, which has been observed in other countries, is it might encourage those people who have a problem with drugs to be more forthcoming in seeking treatment because they know they won't risk being given a criminal record.

It's all pretty much good news so far. What do you think other countries would have to say if the UK decriminalized drugs?
Not very much probably, given that several other countries have done the same thing without it having a big impact on their international relations. Certainly Russia, America, and China aren't going to line up in support of Britain doing it, but the US isn't able to say anything about that these days, and China and Russia have much bigger fish to fry than whether we choose to follow the example of the Portuguese or the Czechs in decriminalizing the use of drugs.

It might be the case that, for Russia or China, [the continued criminalization of drugs] fits in with their global ambitions, but I'd say the UK signing up to have its nuclear power stations built and run by China is a much bigger geopolitical event than whether or not we decriminalize drugs possession.

Thanks, Alex.

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