Drug decriminalisation across the world: the evidence

Man holds a banner in front of a police officer © Support Don't Punish

What is the real impact of drug decriminalisation on the health and rights of people who use drugs? A new interactive online map from the International Drug Policy Consortium, Release and Talking Drugs explores successes and failures of different drug decriminalisation models. It asks: what makes a decriminalisation model successful in protecting the health and rights of people who use drugs?

The harms of drug control

The harms caused by punitive approaches to drug control are now widely recognised:

While this horrific situation is getting worse each year, the scale of the illicit drug market and prevalence of drug use continue to soar according to the 2019 World Drug Report.

Removing criminal sanctions

There is no silver bullet for addressing 100 years of punitive drug policies. But removing criminal sanctions for activities associated with drug use is a necessary step in the right direction. And this is exactly what 48 jurisdictions in 28 countries have done – by decriminalising drug use, drug possession for personal consumption, and for some jurisdictions even social sharing and cannabis cultivation. Certain jurisdictions have done this via legislative reform, others through constitutional or supreme court decisions, while a small number of jurisdictions have decided not to criminalise people who use drugs in practice even though the law remains unchanged.

As could be expected, the models of decriminalisation vary considerably across the world, both with regards to systems in place (which substances are concerned, who makes the decision of whether possession is for personal use and how, what sanctions if any are applied) – and especially in terms of impacts on the ground.

In reality: Portugal, Russia and Mexico

Some models are well-known, and the evidence of effectiveness is clear; this is the case for Portugal. The country decriminalised the use and possession of all drugs for personal use in 2001, with a comprehensive health and social support approach that has enabled the country to significantly reduce the health harms associated with drug use, addressed prison overcrowding, and helped to reduce the stigma and marginalisation faced by people who use drugs.

Other countries, however, have not been so successful. In Russia and Mexico, the severely low quantity thresholds imposed to determine whether possession is for personal use (e.g. 0.3g of ecstasy in Russia, or 0.5g of cocaine in Mexico) have, in practice, led to an increase in the prosecution of people who use drugs.

Russia is also well-known for its harsh punitive measures against people who use drugs, including systematic police intimidation and violence, compulsory detention and the denial of access to life-saving harm reduction services for those in need. This can scarcely be considered as a successful policy.

Exploring the drug decriminalisation map

The map will enable more discussions on what is, and what isn’t, evidence-based decriminalisation – bearing in mind the important warning that smart drug policy is not decriminalisation by any means, it is decriminalisation done right.

Check out the drug decriminalisation map 

Marie Nougier is Head of Research and Communications at the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), a global partner in the Partnership to Inspire, Transform and Connect the HIV response (PITCH), a strategic partnership between Aidsfonds, Frontline AIDS and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.



DecriminalisationHarm reductionPeople who use drugs