Glossary of Terms

Click the drug policy terms listed below to reveal their definitions.

Decriminalisation is not a clearly defined legal term in drug policy discourse (and is often mistakenly confused with legalisation) but is generally understood to refer to the removal of criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of specified drugs for personal use.Under a decriminalisation approach, possession remains an offence that can be subject to a civil or administrative sanction such as a fine or mandatory treatment assessment.

There is considerable variety in how such decriminalisation is implemented in different jurisdictions, in terms of quantity thresholds (for possession/dealing), the nature of civil sanctions, and how sanctions are enforced and by whom (police, judges, social workers, health professionals).2 Unlike legalisation and regulation, decriminalisation of this kind is permitted within the UN drug conventions.


1 Decriminalisation generally refers to possession for personal use but is sometimes applied to other less serious drug offences including cultivation of cannabis for personal use, small scale not for profit drug supply or sharing.

2 See Rolles S. and Eastwood N. (2012) ‘Drug decriminalisation policies in Practice: A global summary’, Harm Reduction International.

Depenalisation is a less specific term, but generally refers to the reduction of penalties for certain drug offences.

Legalisation is a process by which the prohibition of a substance is ended or repealed – allowing for its production, availability and use to be legally regulated. It is important to emphasise the nature of legalisation as a process of legal reform, rather than a policy model in itself; the nature of the regulation model that follows the legalisation process needs to be specified separately.

Prohibition of a particular drug means that its production, trafficking, supply and possession is made illegal and is subject to criminal sanctions (with exceptions for medical and scientific uses). The UN drug conventions state that such prohibitions for specified drugs are global. However, domestic law, enforcement approaches and the nature of sanctions applied to different offences vary significantly between states and jurisdictions.


Regulation describes the way in which government authorities intervene in the market to control a particular legal or legalised drug product (its price, potency, packaging etc.), as well the various aspects of its production, transit, availability, marketing and use. There is no single regulation model  there are a range of regulatory tools that can be deployed in a variety of ways depending on the product and location.

For example, alcohol and caffeine are both regulated drugs, with different modes of regulation. Alcohol is only legally available to people of a certain age, it is manufactured and sold by organisations which are registered with a license (they have to comply with certain rules, such as to not make vodka over a certain strength and to clearly specify the strength once it's made). Alternatively, caffeine is legally available to everyone no matter what age, the regulation here is only to specify on products with high caffeine content (which aren't tea or coffee) what the caffeine content is and to advise that neither children nor pregnant women consume the drink. These two regulation models have been designed to be proportionate to the percieved risk of these two drugs.