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Decriminalization: For and Against Arguments


Today, many countries are facing serious problems in regards to drugs abuse. According to the 2011/2012Crime Survey for and England and Wales (CSEW) around 12 million people in England and Wales have used drugs during their lifetime (Home Office, 2012). Of these numbers, around 5 million have taken Class A drugs at some point in their life while around 38% (2.5 million) are aged 16-24 years old (Home Office 2012). Despite this startling statistics, there exists sharp division about the best national policy that can effectively combine drug use and its distribution. In general, there are mainly two groups with divergent views comprising those who favour criminalization, on the one hand, and a new group of individuals who advocate for new approaches, such as legalization, decriminalization and depenalization. Since these terms are sometimes erroneously used, it is important to define them:

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legalization is defined as the complete removal of sanctions, making a certain behaviour legal and applying no criminal or administrative penalty; decriminalization is defined as the removal of sanctions under the criminal law, with optional use of administrative sanctions (e.g. provision of civil fines or court-ordered therapeutic responses); and depenalization is the decision in practice not to criminally penalize offenders, such as non-prosecution or non-arrest (Hughes & Stevens, 2010 p.999).

Importantly, despite featuring in many debates these strategies have never been subjected to empirical testing and most arguments border on speculation (Hughes & Stevens, 2010 p. 999).

Issues related to drug policy are important in many ways. The first one is that the government has for a long time spent a lot of money on judicial system and drug enforcement agencies in a bid to eradicate the vice. Despite such commendable efforts drug abuse still persists and many people perish due to overdose and health effects attributed to the use of the drugs. Although some countries, such as Portugal have taken bold steps and are implementing controversial drugs laws, others are reluctant to sanctify any measures to save old drug laws.

Despite external evidence demonstrating criminals, the justice system does not deter drug use and trafficking; successive UK regimes have been reluctant to approve any policies that lean towards decriminalization (Hughes & Stevens, 2010, p. 999). The governmnet approach in combating drug problems has been characterised by enactment of laws with harsher penalties. This strategy is based on the assumption that criminalization and punishment will deter people from consuming drugs and slow its distribution, which eventually will lead to containment of the problem. Instead millions continue to plunge into vice with the number taking a toll on available correctional facilities and enforcement agencies. Partly, despite similar cases like the one above and many other reasons to be presented in subsequent discussion in the paper, I still support the decriminalization of illicit drugs. The reason for this can be best understood by examining arguments advanced by proponents of criminalization. In the first section of this paper focus will be given to the arguments advanced by critics of decriminalization. Next, a brief overview of those in favour of decriminalization will be present. This will be followed by a balanced detailed discussion touching on both arguments. The last section will be the conclusion drawn from all the previous sections.

Arguments against decriminalization

Criminalization is necessary in order to reduce availability of drugs. According to Joseph Califona, a prominent opponent of relaxed drug laws and chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia university, “… legalization or decriminalization … will make illegal drugs cheaper, easier to obtain, and more acceptable to use. ”( Califano, 2007 p. 967). The high rate of herion addiction and injectables related AIDS is attributed to the legalization of limited personal possession of illicit drugs (Califano, 2007 p. 967). In Switzerland, the government had to close a “needle park” meant to confine heroin addicts together for better management due to its invasion by foreign tourists.

Another allegation is that without criminalization, society may percieve drugs to be safe and moral. Therefore, this is against established norms that tout drugs are inherently harmful to health, immediate society and the country, in genral.

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In additon to the above, the same groups also claim that criminal sactions serve as a deterence against drug use and trafficking (Woods, 2011 p. 6). They cite this as helpful in instillig fear in potential drug users and dealers.Without this form of deterence they claim underground drug markets will flourish, and the end result will be the rise in drug-related crimes.

A common catchphrase among critics of decriminalization and legalization is that “drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal; the are illegal because they are dangerous” (Califano, 2007). This, therefore, necessitates the state to implement greater control in its use and distrubution. They point at drugs that are associated with short and long adverse effects, such as heroin and cocaine.

Criminalization helps in checking drug related crimes. Proponents of this move argue drugs traffic and their sale lead to increased violence through inter-gang fights for territorial control and robberies to obtain cash in order to sustatin the habit.

In similar vein, proponents also insist that prohibition policies are necessary to protect young adults and children from the influence and effects of drugs. Opponent of decriminalization and legalization often refer to statistics data as evidence that the criminal justice system is indeed working (Hartnett, 2012 para. 2). They claim the number of addicts is on a steady decline and is significanty lower than decades before.

Arguments for decriminalization

As defined above, drug users in a decriminalized regime face adminstrative rather than criminal sactions (Woods, 2011 p. 6). Proponents of decriminalization disagree with the idea that prohibitive policies are necessary to combat the drug menace. Instead they propose that a better and “humane” approach would comprise more health based approaches for addicts, rather than prison sentencing (Woods, 2011 p.6; Hartnett, 2012).

Decriminalization proponents also argue that the “harmful” tag on illicit drugs is biased. They say the harmful effects of most illicit drugs is still unclear, emphasizing that other drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco are associated with even greater adverse effects on health and the economy in general, but they still remain legal. Decriminalization proponents favour a relaxed regime where criminalization of illicit drugs is selective and flexible in terms of location, quantity of use, and treatment options. In the same light they also challenge the notion that decriminalization would translate to ready availability that would in-turn lead to lower prices and widespread use. The claim that this view is unrealistic and hypothetical as previous legalization of alcohol, tobaco and marijuana in some countries did not produce such effect as critics had speculated. Some have also adopted a moral stand on the issue and consider criminalization of drugs as an interefence of personal freedom (Hartnett, 2012 para 2).

They point at countries that have successively implemented decriminalization, for instance, Portugal. Anti-prohibitionists also contend that criminal sanctions are not effective in detering drug use as centuries of their application has resulted in widespread use and distribution. They lament addicts to undergo prohibitive regimes when seeking treatment, and allege that addicts will be free; so, they encourage to seek treatment in a less repressive regime (Woods, 2011 p.6).

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A popular advanced argument is that decriminalization has the potential to reduce budgetary allocations and other resources utilized by drug enforcement agencies. They claim the saved money together with the money from the drug sale could be used to offer better treatment for addicts.

Elsewhere, proponents of discrimination regimes argue that criminal sanctions against drugs are “are a form of institutionalized racism designed to keep minorities as a permanent disenfranchised underclass by keeping them in prison, addicted, or completely dependent on government aid” (Hartnett, 2012 para.2).

Both groups presented above have valid concerns in regards to how best to combat high drug use. It is true that illicit drugs make the user less helpful, and can be the reason for serious health effects. The second group while maintaining that current criminal laws on drugs are indeed necessary, advocate for a more liberal approach in regards to drugs policy. In general, the first favour retention of the current laws in their present status while the later are in favour of adoption of new laws, some beinng unconventional by local standards. In the next section each of this views is examined in light of available evidence.


Prohibition policy system against drug use has been tested for decades. However, they appear not to effective in lowing drug use trends. Today, many expert agree that new approaches should be embraced. They advise government to consider decriminalizing or legalizing drugs especially those meant for personal use. In article published in the Scientific American, Bob Roehr writes the following about the 2010 Vienna convention on AIDS:

Despite massive investments in drug law enforcement in the past three decades, with much of the international interdiction effort paid for by the U.S. government through assistance to national military and police forces, there is “a general pattern of falling drug prices and increasing drug purity” throughout the world (Roehr, 2010).

During the convention the Julio Montaner, director of British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Canada presented his own statement that blames the high rate of AIDS in developing countries on criminal justice sytem that had resulted in “ violence, increased crime rates and destabilizatio of entire states ”,conditions he argues facilitate the spread of HIV/AIDS (Roehr, 2010 para. 7).

The speculation that decriminalization and legalizatio will lead to increased availability and, therefore, increase usage is false as it is not based on facts. Evidence from many countries reveal otherwise. According to a report by Release, decriminalization does not automatically lead to rise in drug use as speculated. This conclusion was arrived at from the analysis of 21 countries that have embraced various forms of decriminalization (Drucker, 2012). The group has argued the government to decriminalize illicit possesion of illicit drugs for personal use.

Closer home pressure is mounting on the government to review its old drug laws. This implies a general change of attitude about illicit drugs and their users. Today, the majority are in favour of decriminalization and/or legalization. There is a general mood abroad and in the country the general mood is that the time for change of prohibitive drug laws has arrived. In a recent report by the UK Drug Policy Commission there has been reviewed the country’s drug policy. The commission after a 6-year study recommended a decrimilization model that would entail drug possessers (who number over 42,000) receive administrative and civil penalties, such as fine, mandator treatment or training instead of serving time in jail (Picavet, 2012). In their conclusion the commission made the statement that :

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Taking drugs does not always cause problems, but this is rarely acknowledged by policymakers. In fact most users do not experience significant problems, and there is some evidence that drug use can have benefits in some circumstances (Picavet, 2012, para. 3).

These sentiments mirror those made by the the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the government principal advisor on drug issues. The council advised that possesion of drugs for personal use must be punished by treatment-biased approaches instead of court prosecution (Fox News, 2011).

Despite numerous calls for change in drug laws, the UK government remains adamant. The prime minister recently dismissed calls for setting up a commission to work out a new policy for decriminalization and legalization of illicit drugs. The prime minister is categorical about his stand on current laws:

“I don’t support decriminalisation. We have a policy which actually is working in Britain. Drugs use is coming down, the emphasis on treatment is absolutely right, and we need to continue with that to make sure we can really make a difference” (Mulholland, 2012).

Such lack of political will is worrying considering the fact that many people continue to perish due to effects of illicit drugs. The government should consider setting up a commission to investigate the viability of descriminalization instead of simply brushing it aside. Many of the claims against decriminalization are based on assumptions despite external evidence showing decriminalization can be potentially beneficial.

It can be argued that prohibitive laws contribute to an increased harm of illicit drugs. Because such drugs are illegal and can only be obtained from underground dealers, their toxicity levels cannot be monitored and maintained (Chand 2007, p.966). As a result, purity of most illicit drugs in the UK has significantly fallen (Chand 2007, p.966). Evidence for this is the death of 70 people in UK in the year 2000 that was later found to have been caused by consumption of bacterially infected herion (Chand 2007, p. 966). Although it is never acknowledged, far too many addicts die from taking toxic drugs than from their percieved ill-effects. In an decriminalized regime authorities will be obligated to ensure acceptable levels of quality of drugs, which this is bound to impact drug-related deaths.

Contrary to critics of decriminalization, legislation does not seem to influence trends in the drug use (Tavares 2012 p.5). This is evident in Italy, where despite prohibition policies and various models of decriminalization, the drug use has remained relatively high since 1975 compared to regional rates (Tavares 2012 p. 5). The study reasearch on marijuana in the Netherlands, Australia and the United States of America stressed on the fact that there was no evidence that decriminalization of the drugs led to an increased use of drugs although it was noted that the move in the Netherlands led to increase, however, this was attributed to coffee shops that took advantage of the relaxed laws to start trading marijuana (Tavares, 2012). Similar findings were also found in the study that looked into cannibis consumption in Amsterdam, where it was not prohibited and in San Francisco where it was criminalized (Tavares 2012, p.5)

Internal reponse to decriminilization

One reason advanced by opponents of criminalization and legalization is that prohibition policy has failed in many countries (Youngers & Walsh, 2012). Although this is debatable, these groups blame tough laws for such effects as the rise in urban crimes, prostitution, overcrowded prisons; an increase in the rate of substance abuse cannot be ignored. Partly due to this protest many countries have initiated plans to ease or completely abolish drugs criminalization laws (Youngers & Walsh, 2012). Many countries have recognized that such an approach has the potential to encourage addicts to seek proper treatment, reduce drug related arrests and cut budgets and number of enforcement agencies tasked with fighting the menace of drug proliferation. Such countries as Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil, and Ecuador are already in the process of adopting less harsh drug laws (Youngers & Walsh, 2012). Similarly, Brazil and Mexico, being the countries with major drug problems have already passed laws that allow personal possession of small quantities of drugs (Youngers & Walsh, 2012). Specifically, 2002 and 2006 amendments of drug laws in Brazil legalized personal possesion of small amounts of drugs, and prison sentences were overturned in favour of mandatory treatment and community service (Youngers & Walsh, 2012). In Ecaudor, the ministry of justice has proposed a new legislation that would see the decriminalization of consumption and application of uniform sentences for all drug offenders.

Based on the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) 2011/2012 data, the extent and illicit drug use has considerably declined in major catogories since 1996 being an indication that current prohibition policies have not entirely failed as presented in some quarters. Proponents of decriminalization have recognized this and have pointed out that decriminalization unlike legalization, does not mean that all current drug laws will be abolished. Instead some criminal sanctions will be retained to punish drug traffickers and dealers. Additionaly, only limited personal consumption will be allowed. In my view, this mix of justice system is responsible for the successful decriminalization program in Portugal.

Decriminalization in Portugal

Although decriminalization is always met with fear and concern that leads to spiraling of drug use rates, experience has proved otherwise. A good example, where decriminalization has produced remarkable success is Portugal. In the 1980 and 1990s Portugal had one of the highest drug rates in the European nation (Hughes & Stevens, 2010). Notably heroin addiction was very high (Woods 2011, p.15) However, this was reversed with implementation of decriminalization laws in the year 2001.

In the year 2001, the Portuguese government decriminalized the personal use and possession of a number of illicit drugs, such as heroin, LSD, cocaine as well as marijuana. The model decriminalization model is grouped into 6 concern areas, in particular, drug use prevalence, health related harms, crime, drug supply, burden on justice system, and implementation (Woods 2011 p.19). Offenders can only be subjected to a number of legal options, which are a fine, confiscation, withdrawal of governmnet subsidies or allowance, warnings, suspension of activities license or ban from social interaction with certain group (Woods 2011, p.19). Contrary to critics’ claims, decriminilization has not made Portugal a drug heaven. Instead it has become an example of the possible beneficial effects of decriminalization, so many countries are studying its model with an aim of a similar implementation at home. Although data is scant, it indicates that the program has been successful. The number of deaths related to overdose had reduced by 28% and new HIV infections attributed to sharing injection needles had declined to 30% from 54% in the year 2001 (Brian Vastag, 2009). Other indicators, such as life-time use of marijuana, cocaine and deaths related to illegal drugs have also significantly reduced. Overall, there have been reduced lifetime prevalence rates in most drugs and age groups (Tavares 2012, p.5).

As shown above, decriminalization has many aspects that need to be given attention to. Conservative authorities should not simply dismiss it entirely. It represents a valid strategy that can be incorporated in the fight against drug use. Although countries are different in many fronts, the positive effect shown in other countries indicates the possibility of the same results at home. However, some countries need to thoroughly investigate the kind of a model of decriminalization that has the potential to work in their country before any implementation is done.


Despite years of prohibitive policy on drug use, its use and distribution remain a serious problem to government and the general public. In UK alone drugs are used by millions of adults and increasingly young adults between 16 to 24 years. Criminal sanctions have not reduced the rate of consumption across all age groups. There are no underground dealers and traffickers who avail the drug and other vices associated with drugs. The general mood of the public is that new policies should be effected. Although some countries have taken bold steps and are implementing non-conventional approaches, some countirs as UK are reluctant to sanctify any measures than advocate for decriminalization despite the fact that decriminalization has proved successful in areas it has been tested. There is also ample evidence that proves the arguments of proponents of criminalization are wrong. Studies show that decriminalization does not lead to increased availability, decreased cost, and the use of drugs. Similarly, experience, especially in Italy, shows that tough legislations against illicit drugs do not simply translate to decreased use. Although criminal sanctions form an integral part in the fight against drugs proliferation and use, I am of the view that they should be changed on the part of users. More efforts should be chanelled toward treatment of addicts and education of masses as opposed to expensive presecutions and enforcement measures. It is also encouraging that many countries both in developing and developed world are moving towards decriminalization. I support decriminalization as it represents a pragmatic and acceptable effort in tacking the drug problems of today. In addition, the fact the it has worked in some countries provides the possibility that it can work at home.


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Drucker, E. (2012). Decriminalization of drugs possession doesn’t increase drug use. New report finds. Web.

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Hughes, C. E., & Stevens, A. (2010). What can we learn from the Portuguese decriminalizatioin of illicit drug? Brit J Crimonol., 50, 999-1022.

Mulholland, H. (2012). David Cameron rejects call for royal commission on drugs. Web.

Picavet, M. (2012). UK:After a six-year study,experts conclude drug use should be decriminalized. Web.

Roehr, B. (2010). A failed “war on drugs” prompts rethinking on HIV infections among injection-drug users. Web.

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Woods, J. B. (2011). Decade after drug decriminalization: What can the United States learn from the Portuguese model. University of the District of Columbia Law Review, 15(1), pp. 1-30.

Youngers, C. A., & Walsh, J. M. (2012). Drug decriminalization: A trend takes shape. Web.

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