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The impact of drug policy liberalisation on willingness to seek help for problem drug use: A comparison of 20 countries.

Benfer I, Zahnow R, Barratt MJ, Maier L, Winstock A, Ferris J

  • Journal The International journal on drug policy

  • Published 03 May 2018

  • Volume 56

  • Pagination 162-175

  • DOI 10.1016/j.drugpo.2018.03.032


While the impact of changing drug policies on rates of drug use has been investigated, research into how help-seeking behaviour changes as drug policies become more public-health focused is limited. This paper investigates reported changes in confidence to utilise drug services following hypothetical changes in national drug policy among a sample of individuals who report recent illicit drug use. We predict that liberalising national drug policy will increase the propensity for people who take illegal drugs to utilise health services.

The data were drawn from a sample of self-reported responses to the 2014 Global Drug Survey. Respondents were asked if they would be more confident seeking help if each of the following policy changes were made in their country; a) drugs were legalised; b) penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs were reduced to a fine only; c) drugs were legally available through governments outlets. Multiple correspondence analysis and multinomial logistic regression with post-estimation linear hypothesis testing were conducted.

Individuals residing in countries with relatively liberal drug policy regimes report their help-seeking behaviour is unlikely to change given the hypothetical policy amendments. Individuals from countries with prohibition-based drug policies reported a far greater propensity for changing their help-seeking behaviour in the event of hypothetical policy amendments, citing reduced fear of criminal sanctions as the major reason. Age and sex differences were also found.

The current study demonstrates the capacity for national drug policy reform to influence drug use risk by facilitating or impeding health service engagement among individuals who use illicit substances. We suggest national drug policy requires careful consideration of both prevention goals and the needs of individuals already engaged in illicit substance use; more liberal drug policies may actually encourage the adoption of harm reduction strategies such as health service engagement.