Removing the Stigma of Criminalization

Criminalization is one of the major barriers to accessing health and social supports for people who use drugs. Criminalization marginalizes, stigmatizes and seriously affects the self-worth of people who use drugs especially those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale including the mentally ill and homeless. It separates, segregates and pushes people to the margins of society.

Removing the burden of criminalization from people who use drugs is an essential first step to enabling their full participation in efforts to attain their health and well-being.

The importance of belonging

In learning environments belonging is a pre-requisite to learning, developing skills and achieving self-determination and citizenship. Without a basic feeling of having a rightful place in society learning is compromised and change is constrained. Criminalization hardens attitudes towards people who use drugs and undermines their sense of belonging. “The propaganda designed to deter people from trying illegal drugs by portraying drug users as a deviant enemy, has  led to a war on drug users themselves.” Julian Buchanan, Tackling Problem Drug Use: A New Conceptual Framework.

Spreading innovation

The failure of criminalization as a part of the drug war paradigm to prevent or discourage use, reduce availability and decrease production has led many countries to consider new and innovative strategies that seek to reach out and support people who use drugs in their efforts to achieve better health and social well-being.

Legislative innovations are moving forward in Europe and South America that include more cost effective ways to reach out to people with drug problems. The legislation protects drug users from arrest and prosecution for drug use, simple possession or cultivation for personal use.

In 2010 in an effort to underscore the the importance of shifting policies from punitive approaches to ones that promote health the medical journal the Lancet published a special issue on drug policy, “We want to see inappropriately aggressive, state-sponsored hostility to drug users replaced by enlightened, scientifically driven attitudes and more equitable societal responses” The Lancet Medical Journal, July, 2010.

Removing drug possession for personal use from the criminal code has been shown to be effective in lowering pressure on law enforcement agencies and on judicial and prison systems. It removes barriers for people with problematic drug use patterns to drug treatment and other health and social services.

Political will in Portugal

A remarkable example of innovation in drug policy is the legislation Portugal introduced in 2001, decriminalizing all drugs for personal use within the limit of a 10-day supply.  Their experience proves where there is political will to implement significant change, leaders can succeed in bringing new and innovative ideas to bear on old and entrenched problems.

The results of this decision have been marked:

Other countries including several South American jurisdictions, Australia, and the U.S. have adopted versions of decriminalization without adverse impacts. If our goal is to minimize the problems that people experience with substance use, reducing contact with the criminal justice system is an immediate first step that will remove significant societal barriers to those seeking help from health services. It will increase the opportunities for people who use illegal drugs to experience a sense of belonging.

Further Reading

Social determinants and the health of drug users: socioeconomic status, homelessness, and incarceration. Sandro Galea and David Vlahov. 2002
Legislative Innovation in Drug Policy, Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy, Martin Jelsma, Transnational Institute. 2009
The Effects of Decriminalization of Drug Use in Portugal, Caitlin Hughes and Alex Stevens, Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Program, 2007
What Can We Learn from the Portuguese Decriminalization of Drugs, Caitlin Hughes and Alex Stephens, British Journal of Criminology, July 2010.
Tackling Problem Drug Use: A New Conceptual Framework. Julian Buchanan, 2004
Belonging and the  Politics of Belonging. Nira Yuval-Davis, 2006

Key policies
  • Injection Room

    A Comprehensive Health, Social and Human Rights Approach

    It's time to approach substance use differently - as a health, social and human rights issue, not a criminal one. more

  • criminalize

    Criminalization: A Barrier to Belonging

    It's time to remove the burden of criminalization for people who use drugs. more

  • prohibition

    Moving Beyond Prohibition

    It's time to consider new innovative strategies of addressing substance use and the illegal drug trade. more

  • earthbl

    Promoting International Human Rights

    It's time to protect people and public health and call on all countries to respect and adhere to the charter of human rights more

  • harmreduction

    Scaling Up Harm Reduction

    It's time to value the rights of people and focus on building trusting relationships. more

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