Could depenalization be applied to the sale or trafficking of drugs?

While such policies might have seemed remote in the past, some governments, including the U.S., are taking nascent steps in that direction. In a measure issued by the attorney general in August of 2013, the U.S. government amended the penalties for the sale of narcotics by nonviolent dealers. Prosecutors are now instructed to “eliminate references to the amount of drugs confiscated that would have previously triggered mandatory minimum sentences”. However, these nonviolent defendants must meet certain criteria, including not belonging to any major drug trafficking organization.

Such policies applied in the U.S. might give less hardened criminals a second chance and be more effective in economizing constrained government resources. Yet, they would have limited effect in most countries in Latin America where the distribution of small quantities for local consumption is less of an issue compared to the trafficking of major amounts of cocaine and heroin to reach their final destination in the U.S. and Europe. Nevertheless, countries confronting major drug trafficking might eventually consider depenalizing drugs with the aim of reducing the violence generated by the most belligerent cartels.

Applying lighter sentences to traffickers and de-emphasizing the interdictions of shipments by cartels that traffic drugs, but do not employ violence, could redirect scarce law enforcement resources toward those smugglers who do use violence to sustain their business and destabilize society. Such a policy could promote a gradual decline in violence where, ultimately, only the least-violent cartels survive. The flow of drugs to consumer countries may stay constant or even increase, placing the burden on countries like the U.S. to develop more effective demand reduction policies. However, from the trafficking countries’ perspective, the primary aim of such a policy would be to reduce, if not eliminate, the extent to which the drug business contributes to violence in their countries.

Learn More


Posted by Anaïs Faure