Assessing the concordance between illicit drug laws on the books and drug law enforcement: Comparison of three states on the continuum from “decriminalised” to “punitive”

Vendula Belackova, Alison Ritter, Marian Shanahan, Caitlin E. Hughes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Background Variations in drug laws, as well as variations in enforcement practice, exist across jurisdictions. This study explored the feasibility of categorising drug laws “on the books” in terms of their punitiveness, and the extent of their concordance with “laws in practice” in a cross-national comparison. Methods “Law on the books”, classified with respect to both cannabis and other drug offences in the Czech Republic, NSW (AU) and Florida (USA) were analysed in order to establish an ordinal relationship between the three states. Indicators to assess the “laws in practice” covered both police (arrests) and court (sentencing) activity between 2002 and 2013. Parametric and non-parametric tests of equality of means, tests of stationarity and correlation analysis were used to examine the concordance between the ordinal categorisation of “laws on the books” and “laws in practice”, as well as trends over time. Results The Czech Republic had the most lenient drug laws; Florida had the most punitive and NSW was in-between. Examining the indicators of “laws in practice”, we found that the population adjusted number of individuals sentenced to prison ranked across the three states was concordant with categorisation of “laws on the books”, but the average sentence length and percentage of court cases sentenced to prison were not. Also, the de jure decriminalisation of drug possession in the Czech Republic yielded a far greater share of administrative offenses than the de facto decriminalisation of cannabis use / possession in NSW. Finally, the mean value of most “laws in practice” indicators changed significantly over time although the “laws on the books” didn't change. Conclusions While some indicators of “laws in practice” were concordant with the ordinal categorisation of drug laws, several indicators of “laws in practice” appeared to operate independently from the drug laws as stated. This has significant implications for drug policy analysis and means that research should not assume they are interchangeable and should consider each separately when designing research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)148-157
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Comparative analysis
  • Illicit drug laws
  • Law enforcement
  • Policy analysis
  • Australia
  • Czech Republic
  • USA
  • drug policy
  • Drug diversion


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