Drug users and the law in the EU

A balance between punishment and treatment
European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)
Drugs in focus Issue: 2
March 2002

dif0302Drug laws in the European Union (EU) seek continuously to strike a balance between punishment and treatment. The three United Nations (UN) conventions on drugs, limit drug use exclusively to medical or scientific purposes. While they do not call for illicit use of drugs to be considered a crime, the 1988 Convention — as a step towards tackling international drug trafficking — does identify possession for personal use to be regarded as such.

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Signatory countries are thus obliged to address the illegal possession of drugs for personal use, but retain their individual freedom to decide on the exact policies to be adopted. In framing their national laws, EU Member States have interpreted and applied this freedom taking their own characteristics, culture and priorities into account, while maintaining a prohibitive stance. The result is a variety of approaches EU-wide to illicit personal use of drugs and its preparatory acts of possession and acquisition.

Yet, when comparing law with actual practice, national positions within the EU seem less divergent than might be expected. In many countries, judicial and administrative authorities increasingly seek opportunities to discharge offenders, or, failing that, arrangements that stop short of severe criminal punishment.

Key policy issues at a glance

1. The UN drug conventions leave countries room for manoeuvre to control illicit possession of drugs for personal use as they see fit, without rigidly defining specific punishments.
2. Within the EU, laws regulating personal use of drugs vary from country to country. In some, punishment includes prison sentences; in others, possession for personal use has been decriminalised in recent years.
3. Police action against illicit use and possession of drugs, although differing within and between countries, is generally increasing in the EU.
4. Prosecutors in most Member States now lean towards non-criminal sanctions for drug use and possession offences. But firm action, including imprisonment, is still the usual outcome for addicts who sell drugs or commit property crime, especially when they are reoffenders.
5. Alternatives to criminal prosecution — usually of a therapeutic or social nature — are now widely available across the EU, but their application and effectiveness vary.
6. Programmes offering alternatives to prosecution can benefit from coordination between the justice and health systems.