UN Conventions Need Not Pose Obstacle to Drug Law Reform, European Study Says 8/31/01

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A new study of drug policies in six European countries argues that the United Nations conventions on drugs and drug trafficking, the backbone of the international drug prohibition regime, are not an insuperable obstacle to drug law reform. The study, "European Drug Laws: The Room for Manoeuvre," sponsored by the British drug reform charity DrugScope (http://www.drugscope.org.uk), compared the drug policies of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden. It found that despite fundamental differences in the way those countries deal with illegal drugs, all conformed to the conventions.

The report was released in the context of political turmoil over drug policy in Britain and was clearly designed to intervene in the uproar.

"For many years a major impediment to drug reform has been the belief that UN conventions restrict any change. This study dispels the view that we are tied rigidly by the UN conventions and shows we have considerable flexibility within them to radically modernize our drug laws," said DrugScope Chief Executive Roger Howard upon the study's release.

"The government needs to decide if allowing otherwise law-abiding citizens to get caught up in the criminal justice system for possessing drugs such as cannabis is a proportionate response in the 21st Century," Howard added.

The study, by a team of leading European legal experts, reviewed the variety of approaches to drug policy in its subject countries. In Italy, for example, possessing drugs is prohibited but punished only with civil sanctions (i.e. suspension of drivers licenses); in Spain, drug possession in illegal but not punished unless it occurs in public, and then punishable only by fines; in Holland, drug possession remains a criminal offense, but is not punished under the "expediency principle," meaning Dutch authorities consider charging such offenders a waste of time.

The study also found that the different countries had different means of dealing with small-scale or "social" drug sales. In Italy, users sharing drugs with other users face civil penalties, while in Holland, the sale of drugs is criminalized, but again the "expediency principle" applies, especially for the sale of cannabis to authorized coffee shops and its growth for personal use. Sweden, on the other hand, criminalizes all aspects of drug use, manufacture and sales.

"The wide variation we see is particularly evident in the way countries deal with possessing drugs and obtaining them, for example through small-scale cannabis cultivation," said study coordinator Dr. Nicholas Dorn. "Some countries consider this to be trafficking; others believe it is so closely associated with drug use that -- to ensure legal coherence -- they treat it in the same way as use."

The differing approaches to drug policy are the result of the UN conventions being interpreted at the national level in line with national political, constitutional, and legal considerations, the study said.

Based on its examination of European drug policies, the study finds that governments worldwide could undertake the following reforms without breaching the UN conventions:

  • Abolish imprisonment as a sanction for drug possession.
  • Introduce civil penalties (like fines) for drug possession.
  • Deal with small-scale "social supply" through civil measures.

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