LEGAL: Topic 2 – Issue Briefing Pack

Topic 2 – The Question of Legalising Drugs: given the variety of approaches to drug legalisation across the world, which drugs should be legalised, and how? 


The UN Declaration of Human Rights endeavours to ensure as much freedom for the individual as possible. Yet no global guidelines exist on the question of recreational drug use. The drugs criminalised within this category vary worldwide, as do the approaches to sanctions raised against those who break the law. While certain punishments may seem acceptable, some violate basic human rights.

Since 2001, Portugal has decriminalised the use of all recreational drugs to try and reduce crimes and infection. At the other end of the scale, the Philippines under President Duterte has seen an increase in extra-judicial killings of drug dealers and users, violating basic human rights.

The UN must ensure that the rights of the individual, especially the right to life, are protected. Yet it must also ensure that any treaties it recommends or sanctions which are recommended to the Security Council do not violate the sovereignty of a nation.

General overview and possible solutions

Legalisation of drugs is a complex topic given the differing cultural values of each UN member state, and arguably there is no appropriate blanket solution, especially given that ‘drugs’ can refer to medical drugs, certain types of which are illegal in many countries, as well as the more common debate surrounding recreational drugs. Much previous UN legislation regarding drugs has focused on international crime caused by the illegal drug trade, such as at the Mexican border, and how drug cartels often intersect with and fund human trafficking gangs, terrorist organisation and organised criminals, such as the decommissioned IRA’s focus on drug trafficking in Irish cities. However, UN solutions for these issues have been complex and difficult to apply given that what constitutes an illegal drug is different in every country, and many countries such as the UK have their own drug classification systems.

Legalisation of recreational marijuana has been a common feature of the drug legalisation debate, especially given that the Netherlands, some states of the USA, South Africa, Argentina, and Canada have already done so. Many see this as a success for personal liberalism as well as preventing contributing members of society from being incarcerated for the supposedly victimless crime of selling and taking drugs. However, others are concerned that marijuana is a gateway drug to more dangerous substances such as heroin and cocaine, which cause much more significant social disruption as well as serious ill health amongst habitual users. Additionally, a legalisation of marijuana alone could lead to an increase in trafficking of illegal drugs and the violent networks of organised crime which often accompany it. 

Another option, pursued by Portugal in 2001, is to legalise all types of drugs regardless of class. This has led to a significant decrease in drug-related crime, including homicide, and allowed local police units to focus on more serious victim-oriented crime. However, this approach of legalising all drugs or all drugs below a certain class is difficult to pursue internationally given the different classification systems used across the world and a hugely varying range of cultural attitudes towards drug-taking. Saudi Arabia, for example, maintains the death penalty for drug use and possession, and so-called kingpins of American and Latin American drug cartels are frequently sentenced to death in the USA.

A serious concern when legalising all drugs is how they will be administered, sold and regulated. Privatisation and use of small companies to sell drugs could allow violent drug kingpins to become legitimate, potentially driving up the crime rate and allowing other crimes such as human trafficking to proliferate. On the other hand, businesses would have strict regulations to abide by and frequent inspections could ensure a safe and functioning recreational drug industry. Allowing a small number of large companies (“big pharma”) to sell recreational drugs instead would be much more efficient for ensuring safety of recreational drugs through clinical trials and information campaigns for users, but this also allows a small number of companies to have significant power and could potentially be dangerous if a drug supply becomes corrupted or the company undergoes internal issues. A final option is allowing each individual nation’s sovereign government full control of drug legislation and distribution, but the fairness of this would vary wildly based on the country, and in a committee aiming to discuss legalisation of drugs, not criminalisation, this solution runs the serious risk of allowing governments to ban them gradually and thus reverse the work of the UN.

The UN here has the option to legalise all drugs, or to apply a drug classification system and then decriminalise based on that as member states see fit. Delegates must consider what they feel would work best and most sensitively, and whether a time limit should be imposed for the gradual decriminalisation of recreational and some forms of medical drugs.

Can a health-based option here also be appropriate, as the UN called for in 2017 when encouraging legalisation of recreational drugs to prevent HIV rates from rising? Additionally, population health is a significant concern in drug legalisation because many important medical drugs are unable to be sold legally in some countries, preventing people from accessing life-saving medication. Delegates should consider this alongside the issue of recreational drugs, especially for countries concerned by the moral implications of recreational drug usage.

Previous actions

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) emphasises the sovereignty of individuals and could be a crucial document in providing moral grounds for recreational drug legislation, but there is no explicit mention of drugs in the UDHR, so its applicability could be dubious.

The United Nations International Drug Control Program has most recently drafted resolutions on preventing illegal manufacture of narcotic drugs ( but little has been implemented regarding drug legalisation, and the existing resolutions can only be useful insofar as they provide a basis for deciding which types of drugs should be legalised.

However, in 2017 the UN and the World Health Organisation released a statement encouraging the decriminalisation of non-narcotic drugs – – citing the potential rates of HIV reduction this could lead to. 

Questions to consider

  • How can a sensitive solution be applied which does not infringe the sovereignty of individual nations?
  • What sort of drug classification system will be applied, if any?
  • How will prices for drugs be fixed if they are legalised?
  • Who will be responsible for distribution and licensing?

Countries which have already legalised drugs in some format


  • Thailand legalised medical marijuana in 2018


  • The Czech Republic criminalises sale of drugs but not purchase, and small amounts of drugs, if found by police, are treated as equally punishable as a parking ticket
  • Germany allows medical marijuana
  • The Netherlands allows use and sale of ‘soft’ drugs such as marijuana
  • Norway decriminalised inhalation of heroin in 2013
  • Portugal abolished all penalties for drugs in 2001
  • Ukraine allows use, sale and production of marijuana

The Americas

  • Argentina allows use but not sale of marijuana
  • Brazil has abolished custodial sentences for drugs and instead uses community service as a punishment
  • Colombia has allowed medical marijuana since 2016
  • Ecuador has legalised possession and consumption of drugs
  • Mexico has decriminalised marijuana and cocaine up to a certain amount
  • Uruguay has never criminalised drugs
  • Canada allows cultivation and sale of marijuana
  • The US states of Colorado, Washington, California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington D.C. and Michigan allow cultivation and use of marijuana


  • South Africa allows consumption of marijuana


  • Australia permits medical marijuana

Delegates should aim to find a considerate and sensitive solution, taking into consideration current states’ policies on drugs.