Greece to decriminalise drugs: Is it time for the UK to look at other options in the war on drugs?

By Owen Williams

Greece decriminalised all drugs on 13 September – a story largely unreported in the British media. MM’s Owen Williams examines the reasons and the affects of such a step and ask whether it is time to have the same debate in the UK.

The drug policy shift in Greece

Greece has been in the headlines of many a British newspaper and television channel in the last few months. Its debt crisis has become almost synonymous with the global credit crunch era and has led many to question the entire concept of a single European currency after multiple bailouts from the European Central Bank.

However, amid the chaos of the Greek economy and the social unrest it has caused, another story has come out of this small South European nation which has gone almost unnoticed by the main British media outlets.

On the 13 September, a bill was presented to the Greek government by Justice Minister Militadis Papaioannou which, to all intents and purposes, decriminalised the personal consumption and possession of small amounts of any drug within the country, on the condition that the drugs only harm the user.

Mr. Papaioannou stated that rather than punishing those who take drugs the bill would redirect the country to a more therapeutic method of dealing with drug-related problems, including long term drug rehab.

The bill signifies an almost complete U-turn by the Greek government, which previously had very strict laws relating to the use, supply and possession of drugs. The reforms come after recent statistics found that over 300 deaths per year were officially linked to the consumption of drugs and that around 40% of prisoners in Greece were detained on drug-related crimes.

The bill also comes just months after an UN-funded report by the Global Commission on Drugs Policy declared that the international war on drugs had failed and that nations should begin the process of legalisation. It is claimed that this is a much more effective tactic in reducing the negative social and economic impact of drugs, and not without significant evidence.

The Portuguese experience

In 2001 Portugal became the first country in Europe to decriminalise drugs. The bill was, unsurprisingly, incredibly controversial in the country, with many claiming it would lead to Portugal becoming a holiday destination for drug addicts, with thousands of tourists flocking to the country to experience legal drug highs.

But the hordes never came as they did to Amsterdam and the new policy has convinced even some of the most conservative critics in Portuguese society. Before decriminalisation, Portugal had the worst heroin problem in Europe (along with the UK and Luxembourg) and drug addicts made up over 50% of newly diagnosed HIV cases.

Since 2001 that percentage has dropped to 20% and the number of new cases of HIV among drug addicts dropped from 3,000 per year to under 2,000. Recent studies have also suggested that young people are less likely to experiment with drugs, particularly harder substances such as cocaine and heroin.

This, coupled with the fact that the number of people addicted to drugs who seek treatment for their problems has increased by approximately a third indicates that decriminalisation, along with the other less talked about measures such as an increase in funding for rehabilitation units, has improved the situation in Portugal.

But what about the UK?

The issue has also come to the fore in the United Kingdom in recent months, with the Liberal Democrats voting in favour of reviewing the current British laws at their recent party conference in Birmingham.

Caroline Chatwin, an expert in drugs policy at the University of Kent, said in the Guardian, that the motion was “an important and positive step forward in the recognition that the harm caused by drug policy can be greater than the harm caused by drugs themselves”. However, the party is not entirely united on the issue.

The only Manchester based Liberal Democrat MP, John Leech, has claimed that there is no evidence that decriminalisation of drugs would result in reduced drug-taking and that full legalisation sends the wrong message that substance abuse is acceptable. He agrees with Prime Minister David Cameron’s position that a Portuguese- or Greek-style policy is not the way to go for the United Kingdom.

Despite this move by the Liberal Democrats, it seems that drug policy reform is still a long way of in Great Britain. Mike Linnell, Communications Director of the Lifeline Project, a UK-based charity devoted to helping those addicted to illicit drugs said that it is incredibly unlikely that the government would relax drug laws any time soon, “they are too frightened of what the Daily Mail will say…too worried that they will lose support from the media.”

It seems that the United Kingdom is still a long way off relaxing its laws related to drugs, despite the seemingly successful implementation in Portugal.

However, if Greece is equally as successful in its decriminalisation of drugs, it may only be a matter of time before other nations, like the UK, are forced to rethink their strategies.

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