Examining Alternatives to Coercive Sanctions for Drug Law Offences and Drug-Related Crime

Gavel and Pair of Handcuffs on Table


The Action Plan accompanying the EU Drugs Strategy for 2013–2016 requires member states ‘to provide, where appropriate and in accordance with their legal frameworks, alternatives to coercive sanctions (such as education, treatment, rehabilitation, aftercare and social integration) for drug using offenders’.


RAND Europe, at the request of the European Commission Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs, sought to map the availability and use of alternatives to coercive sanctions (ACS) across all 28 European member states. The study defined ACS as measures as those that could be given to drug using offenders or those committing drug-related crime, and that had some rehabilitative element or that constituted a non-intervention (e.g., deciding not to charge or prosecute), as well as those used instead of prison or other punishment.

The study focused on three key areas:

  • The legal situation in each member state, the rules and regulations on ACS;
  • How such alternatives are actually applied / implemented in practice in each member state;
  • What is known about the effectiveness of the use of these alternatives in each member state and internationally, including their impact on reoffending and their cost-effectiveness.


Information for the study was primarily gathered through a detailed questionnaire completed by experts in each member state and a review of international research evidence.


The research found that:

  • All member states reported the availability of at least one ACS for drug-using offenders, and most had more than one.
  • Thirteen categories or types of ACS were reported by member state experts. The two most commonly available ACS were ‘drug treatment’ (i.e. a treatment order) and ‘suspension of sentence (with a treatment option)’.
  • Where details were reported on types of drug treatment, there appeared to be a wide range of treatments available to offenders, which were in almost all cases quasi-compulsory (i.e. individuals are provided with a choice between treatment and a punitive outcome such as incarceration).
  • For most of the ACS included in the study, the offender could be prosecuted for the original offence and/or breach when not complying with the ACS. This confirms the quasi-compulsory nature of ACS across the EU.
  • ACS appeared to be mainly offered at the end stages of the criminal justice system. The court and sentencing stages were the most common points at which ACS could be imposed, and in line with this, ACS were mainly offered by judges and prosecutors.
  • There appear to be common barriers to the use of ACS in practice across member states. These include factors relating to decision-makers’ beliefs and practices and administrative, legislative and contextual factors.
  • There is some evidence that ACS can reduce reoffending and drug use, but the evidence base to support or disprove their effectiveness and cost effectiveness is weak. Overall, the evidence can be characterised as promising, but equivocal.
  • There is a developing body of evidence about features that might make ACS more effective. These include ensuring ACS are targeted at individual needs and risk factors of offenders and taking steps to retain individuals in treatment programmes. There is no conclusive evidence as to the effectiveness of compulsory or quasi-compulsory treatment, compared to voluntary treatment.
  • There is need to improve the quality of monitoring data collected by member states about ACS and to conduct good-quality research to develop the currently limited evidence base as to the effectiveness of ACS.

Project Team

Emma Disley, Project Manager
Alex Sutherland
Kristy Kruithof
Matthew Davies
Kei Ito
Lucy Strang
Professor Alex Stevens, University of Kent