Drug Law Reform

There is a growing movement globally calling for countries to shift their response to drugs and drug related issues to a public health and human rights approach. Within the United Nations there is an acknowledgement that pursuing a policy of drug prohibition has skewed country level responses much too far in the direction of using the criminal law to solve what are complex human and societal problems.

As Dr. Carl Hart, a neuropsychopharmacologist from Columbia University mused, “If every problem is seen as a nail then the tool that you grab to address the problem is a hammer.” Welcome to the last 50 years of global drug control policy. The UN itself has acknowledged that the current approach to drugs has generated serious “unintended consequences” including:

  • The creation of a lucrative and violent illicit drug market
  • The redirection of scarce resources from proven health interventions to punitive law enforcement practices and prisons
  • The “balloon effect”, whereby enforcement efforts in one area simply displace drug production and /or drug markets to another area, rather than eliminating them,
  • The displacement of drug consumption from one substance to another, sometimes to more risky alternatives,
  • The stigmatization and marginalization of people who use drugs, which in turn reduces their likelihood of receiving treatment when they need it

In light of these significant and unintended consequences, there is a vigorous discussion internationally underway calling on all countries to explore alternatives to the current approach. A consensus is emerging that public health and human rights should underpin every country’s response to drugs. This involves re-imagining drug related health services including scaling up harm reduction, increasing access to drug treatment and other medical and health services, removing the stigma of possession and use of drugs or problematic drug use and including people who use drugs in the development of programs and services needed.

Moving towards a public health and human rights approach to drugs also requires that the legal framework within which drugs and drug related issues are addressed, be considered. This process is beginning to happen even though countries party to international drug treaties cannot find consensus on the way forward in drug policy. Some countries are moving on their own to challenge the domination of drug prohibition and criminalization of drugs and drug use. CDPC highlighted the need to move away from the paradigm of criminalization of drugs in its first publication in 2012, Changing the Frame: A New Approach to Drug Policy in Canada.

Changes and innovations in drug policy are taking place around the world and there is a great deal of interest in the outcomes of these new approaches. Some examples include:

  • Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001 in order to put the primary focus of their response to problematic drug use, overdose and preventing the spread of infections like HIV.
  • The Netherlands have supported the coffee shop model since the 1970’s, which was an innovative attempt to separate the cannabis market from the so called “harder” drug markets i.e., heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and others.
  • Uruguay is the first country in the world to create a legal, regulated market for adult cannabis use with the explicit goal of undermining the illegal drug market.
  • Several US states have implemented legal regulatory schemes for non-medical cannabisconsumption by adults. Early results have proven to be successful in revenue building for the state through taxation of the product.

Priorities for Action

  • Canada to speak strongly in favour of the UN developing a process to consider alternative approaches to respond to drugs and related harm at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in April 2016.

It’s time to consider alternative approaches. For more information check out these resources:

A New Approach to Managing Illegal Psychoactive Substances, Canadian Public Health Association.


Count the Costs, Transform Drug Policy Foundation


Blueprint for Regulation, Transform Drug Policy Foundation


The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition, Transnational Institute