Drug Laws & Abuse Around the World

In the 1970s, President Nixon declared a war on drugs aimed at stopping the illegal drug trade in the United States. Many people consider this campaign to have been largely ineffective as new people continue to develop addictions and dependencies on drugs each day.

Other countries, however, have different and much more lenient laws around drugs. Let’s take a look at some of those countries and whether or not those lax laws help or hurt the countries’ rates of drug abuse.


For comparison, let’s start here in the United States. We know the country is very strict when it comes to drug laws and use, even though some states have legalized drugs like marijuana.

Nearly half of prisoners at the federal level and 15% of prisoners at the state level are serving time on drug-related charges. At the federal level, nearly 80% of prisoners on drug charges are black or Latino.


In 2018, Canada legalized recreational marijuana across the country. While the number of first-time users increased after legalization, the number of users overall have risen only slightly.

Much like the US, however, Canada is also suffering from an opioid epidemic, so while its lax laws on marijuana are working in reducing rates of incarceration, other drugs continue to be a problem.


In 2001, when 1% of the country’s population was addicted to heroin, Portugal decided to decriminalize all drugs and look at the situation as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. If caught with a small amount of drugs, a person is sent to see a doctor, a lawyer, and a social worker, where they may be given treatment or a small fine.

The approach seems to be working. Portugal now has the second-lowest drug-related death rate in the European Union, the number of drug users has been steadily decreasing, and the number of drug offenders in prison has been more than cut in half.

The Netherlands

It’s one of the most progressive countries in the world and its policies on drug use is no different.

The Netherlands has what they call a tolerance policy around “soft drugs” such as marijuana, with the drug being sold legally at coffee shops under strict conditions. Importing or possessing too much of the drug, however, can still land you in jail.

The number of crimes around soft drugs has been rising, now accounting for nearly 70% of criminal investigations across the country.

Saudi Arabia

Let’s take a look at the other end of the spectrum now. Saudi Arabia has some of the strictest drug laws around the world, with the death penalty almost always being the punishment for drug sale or use. Alcohol use is also illegal in the kingdom, and punishment may include public flogging, a long jail sentence, or death.

Despite these strict laws, drug abuse rates are rising in the country and can be looked at as a public health problem.

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