Hungarian Government Dreams About a Drug-Free Society

July 1, 2013

Unlike most countries in the European Union, Hungary still prefers a zero-tolerance approach to people who use drugs

The Hungarian government has adopted a new “national anti-drug strategy”, the aim of which is to completely eradicate drugs by the year 2020. The document is entitled “Clear Consciousness, Sobriety and the Fight Against Drug Crime” and it has been severely criticised by professional organizations because of its moralising approach and ideologically loaded language. In 2010 the government rejected the pragmatic, progressive national drug strategy adopted by the previous administration, even though it enjoyed broad support among civil society organizations. Since then, the country has had no national drug strategy.

“Our goal is a drug-free Hungary,” said Istvan Simicskó, Secretary of State, on World Drug Day, 26th June. “We are aware that because of the trends experienced in Hungary and the world, this aim may seem unrealistic, but we cannot give up the effort to eradicate drugs from the lives of future generations.”

From the 1st of July, a new Criminal Code comes into effect in Hungary, with more severe punishments directed against people who use drugs. There is an option, in Hungary, for offenders caught in possession of illicit substances for personal use to attend a six-month prevention/treatment program as an alternative to criminal sanctions. The new law limits this option: an offender who is arrested more than once in any two-year period ceases to be eligible for the alternative treatment. Special extenuating regulations in regard to dependent offenders are now abolished, and there are more severe penalties against young people who use drugs in schools or other educational establishments.

“The communities most affected by this law are the most marginalised drug users who are often arrested by the police,” commented Peter Sarosi, Drug Policy Director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. “If a drug user is poor, drug dependent and belongs to the Roma minority, he will have a multiple chance of being incarcerated. Hungary has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in Europe, but now we can expect even higher rates of imprisonment among the most vulnerable groups.”

The HCLU was among the organisations which strongly criticised the new drug strategy and the amendments to the Criminal Code. On World Drug Day, several treatment and harm-reduction NGOs organised a joint press conference and called for “more discernment instead of anti-drug rhetoric”. They pointed out that, despite its anti-drug rhetoric, the government has not provided adequate funding for prevention, harm reduction and treatment; and the necessary political commitment and co-ordination at local and national level are lacking to implement the national drug strategy.


1978 – Hungary's new Criminal Code makes the possession of illicit drugs for personal use punishable by 2 years' imprisonment

1993 – an alternative to incarceration scheme is introduced for small scale offenders. Those caught in possession of small amounts of illcit drugs for personal use can be referred to a six-month prevention or treatment course. Providing they can satisfy the police or prosecutor that they have attended the program, charges are dropped and no criminal record is created.

1998 – the Conservative government amends the Criminal Code. As a result, only people who are stated by a forensic expert to be drug addicts, are eligible for the alternative to criminal punishment. Occasional users are dealt with by the criminal courts. Thousands of young people are criminalised in those years, with no measurable impact on the level of drug use – and zero-tolerance has other, unintended consequences: For example, the number of people seeking help at drug treatment sites reduces by 30 percent.

2000 – the first National Drug Strategy (2000-2009) is adopted with a full consensus of parliamentary parties; harm reduction becomes an integral part of national drug policy.

2002 – the Socialist-Liberal government amends the law, once again allowing all drug users to attend treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration. Those who share drugs for collective use can also opt for treatment instead of punishment.

2004 – the Constitutional Court, in a controversial and much-criticised decision, rejects arguments that the criminalisation of drug use is unconstitutional. However, it approves the system of alternatives to punishment.

2009 – the parliament adopts a new national drug strategy, praised by civil society as one of the most progressive in Europe.

2010 – not long after winning a landslide victory at the 2010 parliamentary elections, the Conservative ruling party announces its intention to strengthen penalties against drug offenders. It rejects the progressive national drug strategy, and announces that it will draft a new strategy.

2011 – the first draft of the new national drug strategy is strongly criticised by all relevant professional organizations as inadequate and based on an outdated approach.

2012 – the government launches a social consultation process on the new draft Criminal Code; some improvements are made in the text after our criticisms of the drug-related parts, but the final version, with severe restrictions, is adopted by Parliament in June.

2013 – Parliament adopts the new national drug strategy and the new Criminal Code comes into effect. The government aims to eradicate illicit drug use by the year 2020.

Posted by Peter Sarosi