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Legal Approaches to Narcotics in Sixteen Countries

The following is a guest post by Peter Roudik, director of legal research at the Law Library of Congress. Peter has previously written a number of posts related to Russia and the former Soviet Union, including posts on the Soviet investigation of Nazi war crimes, lustration in Ukraine, Crimean history and the 2014 referendum, regulating the Winter Olympics in Russia, Soviet law and the assassination of JFK, the treaty on the creation of the Soviet Union, murder as statecraft, and the Russian Spring holiday.

Narcotic poisons / G.E. Madeley, lithog., Wellington St[ree]t, Strand. (George Spratt, artist. Published by John Wilson, Princes Street, Soho; and C. Tilt, Fleet Street, London [1843].) Illustration shows plants classified as narcotic poisons, including Deadly Nightshade, Birthwort, White Poppy, Woody Nightshare, Tobacco, Thorn Apple, Water Hemlock, Foxglove, Strong Scented Lettuce, Hemlock, Herb Paris, and Henbane; also descriptions of plants. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.06483.

Narcotic poisons / G.E. Madeley, lithog., Wellington St[ree]t, Strand. (George Spratt, artist. Published by John Wilson, Princes Street, Soho; and C. Tilt, Fleet Street, London [1843].) Illustration shows plants classified as narcotic poisons, including Deadly Nightshade, Birthwort, White Poppy, Woody Nightshare, Tobacco, Thorn Apple, Water Hemlock, Foxglove, Strong Scented Lettuce, Hemlock, Herb Paris, and Henbane; also descriptions of plants. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.06483.

Tourists who go to Amsterdam and decide to try some drugs in coffee shops may not know that the shops are actually prohibited from selling drugs to them under Dutch law, and that nonresidents of the Netherlands are not allowed even to enter the premises of the coffee shops. Establishments where drugs are used can be closed by local mayors for not adhering to the rules. However, because coffee shops rely on income from tourists and contribute to local economies, mayors do not enforce the Dutch residency requirement and tolerate the sale of certain “soft” drugs to foreigners. Due to public health and safety concerns, the mayors also refrain from prosecuting the so called “user rooms” where drug addicts may use their own drugs and not become a nuisance for the public.

If someone is caught by police in Germany, it does not matter for law enforcement purposes whether soft or hard drugs are involved. Police treat all narcotics equally and the distinction between soft and hard drugs can only be considered at sentencing. It is equally illegal to use drugs in Portugal, which is often named as the European success story in the fight against drugs. Laws passed about 15 years ago did not legalize narcotics but reclassified drug use, possession, and purchase as administrative offenses while maintaining criminal sanctions for the cultivation of drugs for consumption. Penalties for drug use in Portugal may include a prohibition on certain professional activities, a ban on visiting some places, restrictions on meetings with specific individuals, or revocation of a gun license.

While some nations (Canada, Ireland, South Africa) have considered legalizing marijuana, it appears that the only country where it is really legal to produce and use cannabis is Uruguay, although even there it is a highly regulated process involving registration of users.

These and many other interesting facts related to the legalization, decriminalization, or other forms of regulation of drugs and psychoactive substances can be found in a recently published Law Library of Congress report on decriminalization of narcotics in 16 countries. Individual country surveys demonstrate how history, legal traditions, and social and economic developments define each country’s specific approach to prosecuting and regulating the manufacture or cultivation, possession, sale, purchase, and use of traditional (hard and soft) drugs, as well as so-called “new psychoactive substances,” such as party pills and synthetic cannabis (as has occurred in New Zealand).

The report finds that while most of the surveyed countries either do not prosecute some individual drug users or have options for avoiding their criminal prosecution, in general, possessing, manufacturing, and trading in narcotics is prohibited. Countries where decriminalization of drug-related activities has occurred state that this was done to protect the health and safety of individuals and the public. They allow treatment and alternative punishments for minor drug offenses.

Among other aspects, the report reviews the parameters used to define what is legally considered to be large and small quantities of drugs, outlines the role of the police, prosecutors, and courts in drug-related cases, describes recognized addiction treatment programs, analyzes major court rulings, and summarizes legislative proposals currently under consideration in foreign parliaments.

We invite you to read this report, which is one of many other Law Library research products addressing the legal treatment of narcotics. These include a multinational report on the legal status of khat, a plant whose leaves have a stimulant effect when chewed, blog posts on punishments for drug trafficking and the execution of drug offenders in Indonesia, as well as Global Legal Monitor articles on drug trafficking, narcotics and drug abuse, and prescription drugs.

Destroying narcotics, Bureau Internal Rev. [ca. 1920]. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.29152.

Destroying narcotics, Bureau Internal Rev. [ca. 1920]. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.29152.

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