BF Briefing Papers


in Policy

The Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme (BFDPP) is a project dedicated to providing a rigorous, independent review of global drug policy. The aim of this partnership between the Beckley Foundation and DrugScope is to assemble and disseminate information and analysis that supports the rational consideration of these sensitive policy issues at international level and leads to the more effective management of the widespread use of psychoactive substances. It brings together the Beckley Foundation, a charitable trust set up to promote the investigation of the science of drug use and DrugScope, the UK’s leading independent centre of expertise on drugs.

Below is a list of some of the Briefing Papers we have produced:

Reclassification of Cannabis in the United Kingdom

On 29 January 2004, an amendment to the drug laws came into effect in the UK that moved cannabis and its derivatives from Class B to Class C under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the primary drug control legislation in the UK. This is likely to reduce the priority that law enforcement agencies give to combating the possession and use of cannabis and restrict the circumstances under which the police should arrest those found in possession of the drug. However, it would be a mistake to view this as an indication of a more general liberalising trend in UK drug policy or as necessarily a first step towards decriminalisation of cannabis use. The motivations for this policy change and the manner of its implementation are more complex.

Drug Policy and the HIV Pandemic in Russia and Ukraine

Over the past three years Russia and Ukraine have experienced one of the fastest growing HIV pandemics in Europe. In contrast to other parts of the world, the main driver behind the rate of infection is injecting drug use. Recent government policies have placed a heavy emphasis on reducing availability and on harsh punishments for drug users. This approach has not succeeded in significantly reducing the level of drug use. It has pushed the drug scene underground and increased risky behaviours among vulnerable groups. In the absence of measures to reduce infections and reverse the rate of transmission, the long-term impact of HIV/AIDS on population growth and economic development is likely to be grave.

Drug Consumption Rooms

The defining characteristic of Drug Consumption Rooms (DCRs) is that they are legally sanctioned environments where people can take illegal drugs. Their purpose is to reduce drug-related harms. The underlying assumption is that if problem drug users are provided with safe private environments within which to administer drugs there will be a reduction in unsafe public drug use. Drug Consumption Rooms have developed in their modern form since the mid-1980s. For most of this period they have operated in a handful of countries in Western Europe, but in the last few years new facilities have opened in Australia and Canada, and some more rigorous evaluations of their impact have been produced. While the benefits of DCRs should not be exaggerated – and they raise issues of ethical and legal principle that cannot be resolved easily –

evidence is emerging that these facilities can make a positive contribution to reducing drug-related harms where they have the support of local services and communities.

Upheavals in the Australian Drug Market: Heroin Drought, Stimulant Flood

Australia experienced extraordinary and unprecedented changes to its illicit drug market from the end of 2000. A ‘heroin drought’ made the media headlines and grabbed the attention of drug policy specialists across the world. Less widely publicised was the flood of cocaine and methamphetamine into the country at this time. Such abrupt changes in patterns of drug supply, possession and use are rare, and therefore worthy of close study. This Beckley Briefing Paper takes a dispassionate look at the available evidence and seeks to draw out the wider lessons of the Australian upheaval.

Thailand’s ‘War on Drugs’

This Beckley Briefing Paper is concerned with the Thai ‘war on drugs’, which commenced in February 2003 in response to an explosion in methamphetamine use in this region of East Asia, and which has resulted in thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of arrests. The Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme (BFDPP) believes that the proper basis for evaluation of drug policy is effectiveness in minimising drug related harms. But the BFDPP has also argued that the pursuit of harm minimisation should always ‘respect universal human rights and, subject to this requirement, local judicial norms and practices’ (Roberts M, Klein A and Trace M, 2003, p. 6). The Thai ‘war on drugs’ fails to satisfy the BFDPP criteria on these grounds, because it was conducted in a way that violates the basic rules of justice that determine the moral and legal limits of what can be legitimately done by the state in pursuit of social objectives. It is nonetheless instructive to consider the effectiveness of Thai policy both on its own terms (what has the impact been on prevalence?) and in terms of the wider agenda for building the evidence base (what has the impact been on drug related harms?). This investigation is worthwhile because it can provide insights into the strengths and limits of enforcement as an instrument of drug policy, by examining what is perhaps the toughest and most uncompromising recent manifestation of this approach. This is the subject matter of this Beckley briefing.

Decriminalisation of Drugs in Portugal: A Current Overview

In July 2001, Portugal’s government implemented a notable change in drug policy. From that date, users of any illegal drug apprehended by police were brought not before the courts, but before special commissions composed of health, legal, and social work professionals, whose aim was to give drug users the opportunity to access treatment for addiction and other problems related to drug use. That public health led approach had as its main goal the provision of immediate treatment for problematic drug users, aimed at minimising the social costs of drug use. With this reform, the state began viewing drug users not as criminals, but as victims of drugs. This paper presents an overview of the current Portuguese experience since the 2001 reforms.

Incarceration of Drug Offenders: Costs and Impacts

Most governments make strong statements about the need to maintain, and often increase, police activity and penal sanctions for drug users. This is based on the idea that strong enforcement, and widespread incarceration, will deter potential users and dealers from becoming involved in the illegal drug market. In fact, very few countries actually follow through on the rhetoric – arrest and incarceration rates for drug users are relatively low in most countries in relation to the total number of users, and the often quoted maximum sentences are rarely, if ever, used. The one country that has consciously used large-scale incarceration as a drug prevention measure is the United States, where approximately 500,000 drug law offenders are currently in prison. Evidence from their experience over the last 20 years shows that, while some marginal impacts on drug prices and prevalence rates can be attributed to this policy, it has failed to fundamentally alter the scale and nature of the illegal drug market. In addition, there are significant financial, social and health costs associated with high rates of incarceration, which perhaps explains why most countries have not gone down this road.


A tough anti-drugs campaign was launched in Iran following the revolution that established the Islamic Republic in 1979. Individuals caught in possession of drugs received fines, imprisonment and corporal punishment. The death penalty was prescribed for serious drug offences. Despite these measures, drug use and drug trafficking have continued to increase, and Iran has become the principal transit country for drugs from Afghanistan. In 2002, Iran accounted for a quarter of world opiate seizures. At this time, it was officially estimated that there were between 200,000 and 300,000 drug injectors in the country, and this is widely regarded as an underestimate. The costs of Iran’s drug problem include: high levels of dependency and addiction; strains on the capacity of the criminal justice system; increases in drug related deaths; and high rates of HIV/AIDS infection among injecting drug users. There is growing recognition in Iran of the limits of enforcement, and the importance of the medical and social dimensions of drug misuse. This has resulted in improvements in drug treatment and expansion of harm reduction services.


Since the world community first became aware of the widespread transmission of HIV, the risk of infection through the sharing of syringes by people who inject drugs
has been a key concern for policy makers. While the injection of illegal drugs (primarily heroin but also, in many parts of the world, amphetamine and cocaine) is strongly discouraged by drug enforcement and health agencies, it remains a widespread practice – the United Nations estimates that there are currently 13 million regular injectors worldwide (Aceijas et al, 2004). While all continents have recorded populations of injecting drug users, there are concentrations in certain countries and regions – initially in the 1980s in Europe, Australasia and North America, and more recently across Asia, in the former Soviet Union, and Latin America. Nearly 80% of injectors are now to be found in developing and transitional countries. The majority of these individuals will be poor and socially marginalized, with limited access to family support and mainstream health services.


Contemporary international drug policy seeks to control both the demand and supply of drugs through the criminalisation of production, trafficking and use. Furthermore, adherence to the United Nations drug control conventions ensures that most nation states adopt a similar prohibition-oriented approach when formulating
national drug control legislation. Recent research suggests that this can be problematic in some Asian countries where longstanding cultural sanctions already existed for drug use; particularly those involving psychoactive plant products such as cannabis and opium.


The Beckley Foundation organised its third annual international seminar on drug policy in the House of Lords, Palace of Westminster, London, United Kingdom, on 4 December 2006. The objective of the seminar was to examine the preparations for the forthcoming global review of the international drug control system.


During the mid to late 1990s in Australia heroin and heroin related deaths increased steeply, peaking at over 1000 deaths in 1999. In January 2001, there was an abrupt, unpredicted and unprecedented reduction in heroin supply with nearly simultaneous onset in all Australian jurisdictions. The shortage was most marked in New South Wales, the State with the largest heroin market. There were large increases in price, dramatic decreases in purity at the street level, and marked reductions in the ease with which injecting drug users reported that they could obtain heroin.

AT A CROSSROADS: Drug Trafficking, Violence and the Mexican State

In this joint WOLA-BFDPP policy brief, the authors provide an overview of current and past drug policies implemented by the Mexican government, with a focus on its law enforcement efforts. It analyzes the trends in the increased reliance on the Mexican armed forces in counter-drug activities and the role that the United States government has played in shaping Mexico’s counter-drug efforts. It is argued that government responses that are dominated by law enforcement and militarization do little to address the issue in the long term and draw attention away from the fundamental reforms to the police and justice systems that are needed to combat public security problems in the country. The brief also argues that the most effective way to address drug trafficking and its related problem is through increased efforts to curb the demand for illicit drugs in the United States and Mexico.


In 2004, the Beckley Foundation reported on the legal changes that took place in Portugal in 2001 (Allen, Trace & Klein 2004). This report aims to provide an updated overview of the effects of these changes, using data from the evaluations that have been carried out and from new interviews with key stakeholders in Portugal.
We reviewed the available evaluative reports (Moreira, Trigueiros & Antunes 2007; Tavares, Graça, Martins & Asensio 2005; Trigo de Roza 2007) and also carried out 11 interviews with key stakeholders in October 2007. These included representatives of the Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction (the government body in charge of researching and responding to drug addiction and use), non-governmental organisations, political parties and national and international drug researchers.


The Republic of Georgia has experienced rapid economic, political and social change after the gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Drug-related affairs are no exception. The scale of the illicit drug market has increased, drug use has become more common and the citizens’ attitude towards drugs has diversified. As a consequence, the government has been forced to respond to these challenges. Today Georgian drug policy, at least at the rhetorical level, endorses a balanced approach. In reality, however, preference has been given to law enforcement interventions. Prominent among them is coerced drug testing. Under measures introduced in 2006 the consequences of a positive test result include the imposition of severe fines and the confiscation of assets. While apparently increasing government income, the policy has proven to be problematic and failed to reduce the availability of illicit drugs within Georgia.


Over the last decade Plan Colombia has been the principal strategy addressing the complex dynamics of illicit drugs production within that country. It is based on the assumption that a reduction in the illicit drugs market worldwide can be tackled by focusing on supply control measures. Plan Colombia was originally proposed as a peace programme, but soon became a military strategy aimed at weakening the link between illicit drugs and insurgency. The results of this approach in terms of the decline of illegal armies, particularly guerrilla groups, may be considered as a success. In relation to coca cultivation and cocaine trafficking, however, the results show otherwise. The latest United Nations World Drug Report estimates that there has been a 27% increase in the area cultivated with coca in the period 2006-2007 (UNODC, 2008), and Colombia remains one of the major producers of cocaine in the world (See Graph and Table 1). This contradiction leads to a number of questions about the effectiveness of a predominantly military approach in tackling the drugs problem and the real impact of the supply control strategy on the international market of illicit drugs.

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