Alternatives to punishment for drug-using offenders

This international legal framework asks for unauthorised drug possession to be penalised, according to the seriousness of the offence, with prison or other criminal penalties (United Nations, 1961, 1971, 1988). This was originally intended to deter or punish those involved in the supply chain, but in recent decades has been visibly and vigorously applied to deter and punish drug users also. Yet that same international framework has for 40 years also made it clear that users of drugs may be given, ‘as an alternative to conviction or punishment or in addition’, measures such as ‘treatment, education, aftercare, rehabilitation and social reintegration’, i.e. rehabilitative rather than deterrent or retributive responses (United Nations, 1961, as amended, Article 36(1)(b)). These alternatives have received more attention in the last 20 years as the evidence builds to question the effectiveness of the deterrence model, and users, particularly problem drug users, are viewed more as sick than as deviant.
  • Flexibilities in the UN drug conventions
  • Alternatives to punishment
These alternatives or additions to punishment or coercive sanctions may be implemented to solve a variety of problems at different levels. The first is at the level of the individual — to deliver a proportionate response to an offence, to treat addiction and reduce the stigma attached to it. The second is at the level of society — to reduce drug-related crime such as acquisitive crime, as treatment has been shown to be effective at reducing such crime (Holloway et al., 2008), or to reduce disease transmission and other public health and societal harms. And the third is at the level of state structure — to reduce the pressure on the criminal justice system and the resources used by courts and prisons. The objectives of the policy can therefore be manifold.
  • Alternatives to punishment

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This EMCDDA report offers an overview of experiences and evidence of alternatives to punishment and incarceration for people who use drugs across Europe. Although we chose to highlight these paragraphs above, the whole report is relevant for discussions on alternatives to incarceration as allowed by the UN drug control treaties.