Beyond Punitive Prohibition

Liberalizing the Dialogue on International Drug Policy
Melissa T. Aoyagi
Journal of International Law and Politics
Volume 37, Number 3
March 2006

publicationThe primary objective of this paper is to evaluate whether the drug conventions permit states to experiment with alternatives to the punitive prohibitionist policies that have typified the global approach to combating the negative effects of personal drug use. Because harm minimization encompasses most policies providing alternatives to punitive prohibition, the analysis that follows will focus on comparing the two strategies, in an effort to frame the current debate on drug policy.

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This paper represents an effort to clarify the permissible legal confines for the debate over international drug policy and to encourage a more liberal dialogue between the advocates of punitive prohibition and those of its alternatives.

Part II will outline the current drug policy discourse, examining punitive prohibition and various non-prohibitionist options as well as the potential effects of various policy choices. Part III will introduce the relevant treaties. Part IV will consider the proper role, if any, that the treaties permit non-prohibitionist policies to play in the modern international context. Finally, Part V will propose changes to the vocabulary of the drug policy dialogue to encourage clarity and foster the emergence of new ideas in the drug policy debate.


The international treaties do not preclude the coexistence of prohibition and non-prohibition programs to address drug abuse. In fact, experimentation and innovation are necessary to address the problems associated with drug use. States may use certain harm minimization and “decriminalization”
policies without breaching any international drug treaty obligations. States may also use penal sanctions to attempt to deter would-be drug users. The United States could, therefore, maintain its ideological commitment to punitive prohibition. At the same time, other states, such as those in Western Europe, may pursue certain harm minimization and “decriminalization” policies and still be in compliance with the treaties.

The next step in addressing personal consumption should be to alter the dialogue of international drug control by promoting greater freedom to express differing viewpoints and suggest alternatives to punitive prohibition, the current dominant strategy. These changes would provide the necessary flexibility for the drug policy debate to evolve over time.