Decriminalization of drug use: A better option for Bangladesh?

Decriminalization of drug use: A better option for Bangladesh?
Decriminalization supports a structure that would ensure healthcare and rehabilitation for the addicted if the person is not guilty of any serious crime. Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Decriminalization does not necessarily mean legalization, but rather removes criminal penalties for use or possession either by law (de jure) or by practice (de facto). This is the third instalment of the four-part series exploring the menace of drug addiction in the country and the ways to address it.

Prevention and attenuation of drug addiction has long been a global concern. The proposal to decriminalize drug addiction gained momentum following the establishment of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961.

It is an international treaty for prohibiting production and supply of specific drugs and of drugs with similar effects, except under license for specific purposes.

The think-tanks behind this approach had pointed out that repressive efforts directed at the consumers of illegal drugs impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of narcotics use.

Three major treaties have been introduced to help control the global narcotics issue- the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, which was amended by the 1972 Protocol, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988.

The United Nations office on Drugs and Crimes, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, WHO, the European Monitoring centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and many other research and advocacy organizations are working across the globe for promotion and implementation of the above-mentioned strategy.

This approach provides the authorities with a new method of dealing with drug abuse. Adopting such a strategy could lessen the number of people addicted to drugs, and help reduce the chances of further harm to addicts who are undergoing punishment or rehabilitation.

A report by The Global Commission on Drug Policy (2011) recommended that criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others, should come to an end.

Many countries around the world have already decriminalized drug use and possession in various ways.

What is drug decriminalization?

Drug decriminalization is the process for reduced control and penalties compared to existing drug laws. Proponents of drug decriminalization usually support the use of fines or other punishments to replace prison terms.

This approach often proposes systems whereby illegal drug users who are caught would be fined, but would not receive a permanent criminal record as a result. A central feature of drug decriminalization is the concept of harm reduction.

Decriminalization supports a structure that would ensure healthcare and rehabilitation for the addicted if the person is not guilty of any serious crime.

According to the Decriminalization of Drug Use and Possession in Australia- a briefing note published by the National Drug and Alcohol Research centre of the University of New South Wales – decriminalization does not necessarily mean legalization, but rather removes criminal penalties for use or possession either by law (de jure) or by practice (de facto).

Will decriminalization help?

Evidence supported by various research indicate that decriminalization of drug use reduces the cost to society, especially in the criminal justice system.

The approach also reduces social costs to individuals, such as improving employment prospects, decrease of drug use and a drop in crime rates. However, the same strategy could in some cases, increase the numbers of people who have contact with the criminal justice system (net widening).

Australia has a mixture of de jure and de facto decriminalization schemes for use and possession of illicit drugs.

But there is an opportunity to expand decriminalization for drug use in Australia, particularly through de jure decriminalization schemes targeting all illicit drugs.

This could further reduce costs to the criminal justice system and to the individuals, the report said.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy report also encouraged experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and to safeguard the health and security of their citizens.

Ashique Selim, a specialized addiction psychiatrist, told the correspondent: “As the drug addiction issue is worsening day by day, the country should adopt the decriminalization of drug use policy.

“It might take some time, but if this approach could be implemented by ensuring necessary facilities for the addicted, Bangladesh would become a leading country in the region to lessen drug addiction, just like Portugal did.”

Portugal- a success story

Portugal has become a shining example of success by decriminalizing drug use by individuals.

The Portuguese legal framework on drugs changed in November of 2000, and was implemented from July, 2001.

Over the years, this approach emerged as a triumphant move by the Portuguese government, as the rate of HIV/AIDS patients dropped dramatically in the country.

Following the success of drug decriminalization, the country adopted The National Plan for the Reduction of Addictive Behaviours and Dependencies 2013-2020.

The national plan states that treatment interventions should be based on a comprehensive diagnosis of each citizen’s biological and psychosocial needs, be accessible and adaptable, be based on scientific evidence in terms of effectiveness, efficiency and quality.

The treatment of addicts should also be underpinned by government guidelines, the plan stated.

According to an estimate by the Portuguese Health Ministry, heroin use among citizens stood at around 100,000 people when the policy was launched, but it has now dropped to 25,000.

The number of Portuguese citizens dying from drug overdose went down by more than 85%, before rising a bit during the aftermath of the European economic crisis in recent years.

Even so, Portugal’s drug mortality rate is the lowest in Western Europe- one-tenth the rate of Britain or Denmark, and about one-fiftieth of the latest numbers for the USA.

In recent years, a number of countries in the developed world have partially decriminalized drugs, and many other countries like Australia, USA, Ireland, Iran and many more are researching on decriminalizing drug use by individuals.

Several Scandinavian countries are also giving serious thought to implementing the approach.

In a positive move, Bangladesh is also formulating the draft of a new Narcotic Substance Control Act, adopting the recommendation from the three treaties.

A provision in the draft act states that if a person is not convicted of any other crimes, excluding drug use, the court can term the person a drug addict and send him or her to an appropriate facility for treatment.

However, if an addict refuses to accept treatment, the person can face up to five years in prison and Tk5,000 in fines if convicted.

Source: Dhaka Tribune.

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