Evidence shows that penal measures alone, regardless of their strictness, fail to achieve their aim of reducing drug use. Moreover, in many cases, laws that criminalize drug use lead to negative consequences, such as stigmatization of people who use drugs, violation of human rights, difficult access to treatment and re-socialization etc.
Having in mind that drug use can cause serious damages both on individual and on societal level, states across the world implement diverse strategies to prevent or decrease these consequences. In most countries in the world, the production, possession, sales or purchase and use of drugs is banned. The international legal framework is based on three conventions for narcotic drugs and psychoactive substances (dated 1961, 1971, 1988) brought by the UN, and signed and ratified by UN member-states. As stated in the 1988 Convention, with its ratification, countries undertake to carry out sanctions for the production, sales, transport, distribution or purchase of forbidden substances as stipulated in the 1961 and 1971 conventions.
All three conventions enable the signatories to carry out measures for treatment, education, post-treatment care, rehabilitation and social re-integration for those who have committed drug-related crimes, and are dependent on drugs themselves.
Although varying interpretations exist, conventions don’t contain any specific articles or detailed provisions regarding the criminalization of drugs and they leave open the possibility for flexible national policies in terms of sanctioning personal drug use.
Still, most signatory countries ban the production, sales, transport, procurement and use of drugs. Also, a large number of states criminalize the use of drugs such as Russia, Georgia, Singapore, China etc.
In 2008, the Executive Director of UNDOC – the UN Office on Drugs and Crime pointed out these negative consequences of the international drug-related legal framework, which has proven to be rather restrictive.
A huge revenue-generating black market has been created around drugs, exploited by powerful criminal organizations.
Geographic replacementof the production, i.e. any successful action against drug production in one part of the country or a region in the world creates the so-called ‘balloon effect’ and induces increase of drug production in another part of the country or the region. Production doesn’t decrease, only moves around.
Substance replacement – this is when certain actions and strategies lead to decrease of production and demand of a certain type of drug, dealers and people who use drugs transfer to a new type of drug, often multiple times more damaging than the previous one.
Criminalizationof people who use drugs increases their marginalization and stigmatization which leads to a obstructed access to health and social services and decrease of their productivity in society.
Evidence shows that penal measures alone, regardless of their strictness, fail to achieve their aim of reducing drug use. Moreover, in many cases, laws that criminalize drug use lead to negative consequences, such as user stigmatization, violation of human rights, difficult access to treatment and re-socialization etc.
On the other hand, in some other countries, such as Portugal, Czech Republic, Holland, Spain etc., focus is placed on public health, social policy and human rights, and laws do not criminalize the use of drugs. In 2013, Uruguay went a step further and legalized production for personal use, but only for marihuana. Namely, its citizens, once licensed, can choose between these three options: to produce up to 6 plants a year by themselves, to become members of a marihuana social club where jointly with other 15 to 45 members, they can raise up to 99 plants a year, or to buy 40 grams a month from licensed pharmacies.
Some countries, such as several federal units of the USA, legalize only the medical use of marihuana, or allow the founding of social clubs of marihuana users (Slovenia, Belgium etc.), who can jointly grow or possess marihuana for personal use.
However, movements and initiatives for law changes towards decriminalization of the possession and use of drugs, as well as legalization of marihuana are ever more increasing, probably encouraged by the results of these policies, which were comprehensively discussed in the previous issue of Drugs – Policies and practices.
In Macedonia, the possession for personal use is not a crime, and drug use is considered a misdemeanor against the public order and peace and is financially penalized. More specifically, in Macedonia possession for personal use is decriminalized. What is considered a crime is the possession for sales. However, in practice, possession is most often treated within the frames of the Criminal Code.
The editorial board of the Drugs – policies and practices magazine, carried out a phone and internet survey for this issue, in order to get an idea about the attitudes of Macedonian citizens on these two questions:
• Do you consider drug possession exceptionally for personal use should be punishable by law?
• Do you think that marihuana use should be legalized?
The phone survey included 1095 interviewees, on a representative sample selected according to gender, age, ethnicity and place of living.
90,5% of the interviewees stated that drug possession only for personal use should be punishable by law, 6,9% considered that this should not be a punishable act, while 5,3% didn’t know or didn’t want to answer the first question.
At the question about legalization of marihuana, 83,7% of the interviewed stated that they were against legalization, 9,3% stated that marihuana should be legalized, and 9,7% didn’t know or didn’t want to answer.
In age group distribution, the largest percentage of surveyed who were in favor of marihuana legalization were people aged 18 to 29 (13,5%). According to their place of living, marihuana legalization was mostly supported by the interviewees from the Skopje (16,2%) and the South-eastern region of the country (12,5%). It is exactly in the South-eastern region of the country that the support for banning the legalization of marihuana use is the least (70,8%). The remaining 29,2% are people who either support legalization, or don’t know or don’t want to answer.
The same two questions were posed at an anonymous survey which was promoted via social networks on the internet using a Google-based survey. The survey was filled in by a total of 288 interviewees. The results from this survey differed largely from those of the phone survey. Namely, 79% of the interviewed in the internet survey thought that possession solely for personal use should not be punishable by law, and only 15% thought that it should be.
At the question for legalization of marihuana use, 249, i.e. 86% answered that marihuana use should be legalized, while only 21 interviewee, i.e. 7% were against legalization. Other interviewees didn’t want to answer (1%), didn’t know (5%) or had no opinion (1%). It is clear that internet surveys are not representative and their weakness is that they are answered only by those who had the possibility to learn about the survey and were motivated to participate. Also, age-wise, interviewees here were younger, with an average age of 30,5 years, which is characteristic of internet users and it is usual that younger people favor marihuana legalization. This conclusion was confirmed by the phone survey results. On the other hand, one weakness of the phone survey was that these sensitive questions were asked via the phone which decreased the probability for providing an honest answer.
Still, I will refer to the relevance of the phone survey, although I am deeply convinced that it does not express the actual situation and the attitude of the Macedonian citizen.
For comparison, I will mention the example with the dynamics of the public opinion regarding the marihuana regulation in the USA. This year for the first time, a research showed that most Americans, 58% according to Galup, 54% according to CNN, were pro marihuana legalization. The biggest increase, of 10%, appeared last year, and analysts think that the reason for this was marihuana legalization in the states of Colorado and Washington. This is a huge difference in comparison with the first research by Galup carried out in 1969 when only 12% of all interviewees supported legalization, and in 1987 when only 16% supported it, according to CNN. In the meantime, in the USA several campaigns happened promoting the legalization of marihuana, the most intensive ones being in the last 10 years, and the results being visible.
Ethical and social dilemmas of criminalization
The success of a drugs policy from the aspect of personal health is often times measured according to prevalence, i.e. the number of people who use drugs, the number of dependent people in treatment, mortality, co-morbidity and other indicators.
From a legal and criminal point of view, success is measured according to the number of prisoners, the number of drug-related crimes and offences, the number of newly registered users etc. However, the assessment of one policy in the specific case the criminalization of the use of drugs will be complete if social and psychological indicators are also assessed. Namely, what number of people who use drugs have found a job, how many of them have founded a family (although I personally don’t think that founding a family is ant criterion for success in life), how many are accepted by society, i.e. whether they are stigmatized, decriminalized etc.
There are other indicators that have not been assessed or measured at all, or have been so, but only rarely. For example, the suffering and emotional pain of a child whose parent is imprisoned under the Law because he possessed marihuana for personal use. How do you measure the influence of the Law that criminalized the use of drugs on the suffering of this child, on its psychosocial development and growth without a parent (because he is in jail), on learning and on its conduct at school, the influence on the possible rejection from its school mates because they don’t want to be friends with a prisoner’s child etc.? This is just a segment of the questions rarely asked when certain laws are being enacted.
Having in mind all the seriousness of the laws regulating drugs, enacted by politicians, we must ask ourselves if our politicians take into account all these negative consequences of the laws they vote for. I am not convinced in that, and this is why I believe that all of us who professionally work on drug related issues must be much louder, in order to point to the need for change of laws and to be actively included in their drafting. Now is the real moment to remind ourselves about Charles De Gaulle’s statement „Politics is too serious a business to be left only to the politicians“.
Pursuing a Master’s degree in social policy, has a thirtheen years of experience on drug related issues; currently working as a manager of CEDR – Center for Education, Documentation and Research within HOPS. He has developed most of the harm reduction programs in Macedonia. He is activist for human rights of marginalized communities and member of several national and international committees and bodies for drugs, HIV/AIDS and human rights.