There are endless approaches to drug policy, and it is unclear which approach is most effective – governments can vacillate and vary between stringent or lenient policies, and may either favor decriminalization or enforce extremely severe laws and punishments. Countries that enforce strict laws for drug use believe that this type of system will keep drug use at a minimum, while countries with laws in a more ‘laissez-faire’ style, often insist that a liberal approach will diminish the black market for drugs and thus, the violent crimes and offenses that emerge from a thriving black market. The legality of drugs is a nuanced subject – for example, many countries may mandate authoritarian laws and sentences for drug abuse, even including the death penalty, but may rarely, if ever, enforce these seemingly clear-cut laws. Thus, the legality of drugs is not a black and white situation, but one that is riddled with ambiguity. Due to this ambiguity, this list uses a variety of determinant factors to label these ten countries as having the most liberal drug policies in the world.
Although some of the countries near the top of this list are a no-brainer, Croatia’s spot may come as a surprise – it’s a relatively small country that generally flies under the radar. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for its lax drug laws: Croatians aged 15-34 use marijuana at a high rate of about 18.5%, and in 2012, Croatia decided to decriminalize recreational drug use. While possession of drugs for personal use is now quite lenient in Croatia, selling drugs remains illegal. Additionally, decriminalization definitely doesn’t mean you’ll get off scot-free if you’re caught with drugs. It simply means that instead of facing prison time, those caught with drugs may face a fine, rehabilitation, community service, or a combination of all three.
Australia’s stance on drug policy has definitely experienced its ups and downs. While Australia has one of the highest percentages of those who use marijuana, use of the drug is still technically illegal. However, in 2001, Australia began opening “supervised injection sites,” which offer drug users a safe place to use drugs. These centers, which also exist in Europe, supply users with immediate emergency assistance, as well as long-term help if they so desire: staff is trained to deal with overdoses and other difficulties. Additionally, these centers provide scientific information about drug use. While Australia’s government has made great strides in terms of their drug policy, there is still work to be done: decriminalization and legalization have not yet occurred.
Latin America has often borne the brunt of the “War on Drugs” that was declared in the USA in the 1980s. However, many Latin American countries are attempting to combat the destruction that has stemmed from the US drug problem. Ecuador is one of these countries: in 2008, the Ecuadorian government decriminalized drug use. Citizens are now able to keep small amounts of drugs, although the sale of drugs remains illegal. The government has established maximums: Ecuadorians are able to possess both “soft drugs” like 10 grams of marijuana and “hard drugs” like 100 milligrams of heroin or 80 milligrams of MDMA.
Argentina is another Latin American country that is attempting to deal with drug cartels through decriminalization of drugs. Additionally, Argentina has an idealistic approach: the government has decriminalized drugs largely because the Argentine people believe individual adults must retain the right to make their own decisions. Whether the use of drugs harms the self is irrelevant in this discussion: if one’s decisions don’t negatively impact others, the individual has the right to use drugs. This belief in an individual’s intrinsic right to make decisions about one’s life, has led the Argentine people to insist that criminal persecution of drug users is both immoral and unconstitutional. While North America lags behind, many Latin American countries are beginning to understand that regulation, not outright bans, is often a successful approach to drug policy.
Jamaica is famous for the Rastafari movement, where Bob Marley was a notable member. This movement advocates a spiritual way of life that involves smoking marijuana; thus, it’s partially the prominence of the Rastafari movement that has led to Jamaica’s notoriously lax drug policy. The government has decided to move towards decriminalization of marijuana, but enforcement was always lenient to begin with. Estimates on the percentage of Jamaicans who use marijuana varies widely: some sources claim that it’s as high as 70%, while others stand by 10%, a much more modest figure. Whether the high or low estimates are correct, Jamaica’s government is taking definable steps towards a more liberal drug policy.
Not only does Uruguay have the honor of bearing one of the most authentic and humble presidents in the world (President Jose Mujica donates 90% of his $12,000 salary to his people and lives a modest life), drug use has actually never been a criminal offense in this beautiful country. Additionally, in 2012, the government began selling their own marijuana, largely to combat the cartels currently ravaging Central and South America. Although the road to decriminalization and government-sanctioned marijuana has not been without its difficulties, Uruguay hopes that other countries will follow suit and join them in the battle for freedom of lifestyle and against drug cartels.
Because they were trailblazers in the fight for a more liberal drug policy, Portugal earns a spot in the top five: Portugal was actually the first country in Europe to decriminalize drugs. Drug use in Portugal is often viewed as a public health issue, opposed to the view that drug use is a criminal activity, which is the predominating outlook in the USA. This more nuanced and forgiving stance has led to the doling out of therapy sessions, rather than prison sentences, and the decriminalization of drugs has actually coincided with a drop in drug use and deaths from overdose.
3. The Netherlands
With Amsterdam as one of the most notorious cities for drug tourism in the world, it’s no surprise that the Netherlands are near the top of this list. Purchasing small amounts of marijuana from “coffeeshops” is legal, although tourists may be banned from the stores. There are some difficulties with the coffeeshops, however: growers are not legally permitted to import marijuana or to sell marijuana to coffeeshops. Laws regulating the buying and selling of marijuana are often ambiguous or more austere than reality would suggest, but a policy of non-enforcement towards the stricter laws has arisen. Frequenting coffee-shops as a tourist in Amsterdam is still legal, so enjoy it while it lasts!
2. Czech Republic
As if the beauty and splendor of the Czech Republic’s capital city, Prague, and its glorious landscape wasn’t enough, the Czech Republic has some pretty laid back laws when it comes to drugs. Possession and sale of drugs in the Czech Republic are still illegal; however, if you’re caught, you won’t get much more than a slap on the wrist, unlike, for example, Saudi Arabia, where death by hanging is a possible punishment for drug trafficking. And yes, these extremely lax laws extend to the good stuff – those in the Czech Republic are allowed to possess small amounts of a wide variety of drugs, including, but not limited to, five tabs of LSD, a whopping 40 psilocybin mushrooms and 1.5 grams of heroin.
Although Mexico has rightfully earned its spot as the country with the most liberal drug laws in the world, this achievement is slightly misleading. It is true that, in 2009, Mexico decriminalized many drugs that are considered “hard,” including cocaine, LSD and heroin. However, the country has done so due to the thriving black market and the drug cartels that have caused massive amount of damage, death and destruction. Therefore, while it may be both easy and legal to get your fix in Mexico, it has come with a price. Hopefully, drug decriminalization will lead to a safer situation in Mexico and throughout the world.