Alternatives to punishment for drug using offenders

A European perspective

A recent (July 2015) report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Abuse on alternatives to punishment for drug using offenders makes for interesting reading.

Different countries have been targeting the criminal justice system as a way of trying to engage drug users into treatment and prevent very high levels of crime for the last 40 years or so.

This report shows that there is a very varied approach across the continent, some of the main ones are summarised below.


Measures available to police

Arrest referral has been operating in the UK since 2002 and was incorporated into the Drugs Intervention Programme in 2005. Although DIP national funding was discontinued in 2013, many police force areas still operate drug testing on arrest with access to a drugs worker in police cells to try to engage drug using offenders in treatment.

This approach has also been tried in Ireland and Malta and police in Portugal refer drug users (including non-dependent users) to the national network of commissions for the dissuasion of drug abuse.

EMCDDA alternatives to punishment

Measures available to prosecutors

A number of other countries operate a different approach where prosecutors can suspend legal proceedings if the drug user in question decides to engage with treatment services. In many countries, such as France, Italy, Luxembourg, Romania and Spain, this approach is only used for offences of possession of drugs for personal use. However, prosecutors in Austria, Belgium, Greece, Latvia and the Netherlands can apply a similar approach for drug users who have committed thefts and other crimes related to their drug use. In Poland, if an offender seeks treatment on their own behalf, the prosecutor may suspend legal proceedings.


Measures available to courts

Courts in many European countries have powers to treat drug using offenders differently. In 10 countries, criminal prosecutions may be deferred see whether a defendant successfully engages in drug treatment; in others punishment is ordered that is suspended defending on completion of drug treatment; and in others (Croatia, France, Norway, Sweden and the UK) courts can make a specific sentence which requires participation in drug treatment.


Do alternatives to prison work?

The EMCDDA report concludes that there is not a sufficiently robust evidence base to draw clear conclusions – for instance only six European countries were able to provide completion rates for treatment which was entered as an alternative to prison. Rates varied between drug using offenders in the UK completing 55% of drug rehabilitation requirements and 75% of Swedish offenders who completed drug treatment as part of their probation supervision.

Nevertheless, the EMCDDA concludes that several rehabilitative options appear to be better in terms of efficiency, efficacy, or both, than punishment by itself, or at least less harmful, particularly where the punishment involves a prison sentence.



In summary, few countries in Europe have chosen to adopt widespread rehabilitative approaches, with most opting for simpler policies of decriminalisation or depenalisation — alternatives to prison, but not alternatives to punishment. The policies that are adopted are often carried out without robust monitoring or evaluation; large numbers of drug users are diverted from the criminal justice system in many European countries without any systematic follow-up.

The EMCDDA tentatively suggests that the key to success seems to be having a range of interventions available that can be matched appropriately to the needs of individuals with different types and levels of drug problems.


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