2021.10.18 17:30

Was criminalising drug possession in Lithuania a mistake?

Jurga Bakaitė, LRT.lt2021.10.18 17:30

On Thursday, the Lithuanian parliament approved law amendments, proposing to decriminalise possession of small quantities of drugs.

The amendments aim to reinstate regulations that were in force until 2017, when liability for possession of small quantities of drugs was considered an Administrative Offence and not part of the Criminal Code, and would only be punishable by a fine.

Read more: Lithuania moves to decriminalise possession of drugs

The proponents of the amendments said that criminalising the possession of small quantities of drugs was a mistake and did not help fight drug use in Lithuania.

“In 2017, when provisions became part of the Criminal Code, the situation did not improve but started to worsen. It means that these measures did not work,” said Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis and head of the ruling conservative Homeland Union (TS-LKD).

Another conservative MP, Linas Slušnys, said the change in 2017 was based on a myth that it would lead to fewer young people taking drugs.

“There was a myth that kids would get scared and stop using drugs. […] But the Criminal Code cannot solve this problem; it needs a humane solution,” he said.

More crime

According to Lithuania’s Drug, Tobacco and Alcohol Control Department (NTAKD), drug use has in fact worsened in Lithuania in recent years.

In 2017, after the possession of small quantities of drugs was criminalised, the number of criminal offences has almost doubled from 733 to 1,106. The share of charges for drug possession has also increased, while most offenders were under 18 years old in 2020.

“These numbers indicate that issues related to drug use and the criminal behaviour stemming from it have not disappeared. On the contrary, these problems have deepened, and criminal law is not a way to solve them,” said Gražina Bielian, deputy director of NTAKD.

Healthcare spending

According to representatives of the Homeland Union, healthcare expenditure on services treating mental health issues caused by drug use has also increased in recent years.

But greater healthcare spending does not automatically imply a failure of drug possession criminalisation, said a criminologist and professor at Vilnius University, Mindaugas Lankauskas.

According to him, the country cannot draw conclusions from the fact that the number of drug-related criminal offences has been on the rise.

“No impact assessment studies have been carried out. The number of drug-related offences has increased in recent years, but it has been going up steadily since 2000,” Lankauskas said.

“In general, the number of criminal offences in our country is decreasing, the number of drug-related offences is increasing, while drug use is staying stable,” he added.

The criminologist said that only a nationwide survey could help evaluate the real effect of criminalising or legalising the possession of small quantities of drugs.

“Including the possession of small quantities of drugs into the Criminal Code or removing this provision from it might not be at all related to an increase or decrease in drug use,” Lankauskas said.

But according to him, drug possession should not be part of the criminal law. “The western attitude is to try and solve the drug problem with healthcare measures,” he said.

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