Global Recovery: Where International Justice Meets the Drug Court Model

Map of the world

The first drug court was established in 1989 in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and was designed to tackle the cocaine epidemic that had overtaken the region. This first drug court provided an alternative response to mass incarceration and added a facet to American justice that hadn’t yet been seen. Miami-Dade’s model imparted the idea that offending rates could be reduced without the severe punishment of jail or prison. In addition, it emphasized the notion that treating the root causes of crime, including mental health and addiction issues, could not only achieve the same results as traditional justice, but could actually surpass them.

Since the creation of the first drug court, the number of similarly-inspired programs has burgeoned to over four thousand in the United States alone. The field is flooded with success stories of drug court participants that are often poignant and enlightening. These stories encourage researchers and practitioners alike to keep fighting for more and improved forms of restorative justice in the American judicial system. However, the emergence of the drug court model hasn’t only made its mark in the US; in celebration of the approaching World Day for International Justice on July 17th, we take a look at just how far the drug court model has spread.

In February 2005, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) developed a flyer titled Drug Treatment Courts Work! They cited fourteen nations that housed at least one drug treatment court program including Norway, Ireland, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2013, the International Association of Drug Treatment Courts (IADTC) published a newsletter that incorporated graduation speeches and stories from Belgium, Chile, the Cayman Islands, and Great Britain. The same newsletter updated readers on IADTC’s partnership with CICAD, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, who provided technical assistance and evaluation to courts in the Americas and the Caribbean. Similar publications also can be found throughout Europe and Australia.

Though they all originate from the same model, no two drug courts are constructed the same nor serve identical populations. These differences, along with necessary cultural adaptations, are also seen in drug courts around the world. Even the World Health Organization and the UNODC’s 2017 International Standards for the Treatment of Drug Use Disorders stated that “structure and processes…may vary” within drug treatment courts. This variation may be a response to the diverse resources available to courts and the disparate needs of their participants.

One such divergency may be a population’s primary drug of choice, which often affects the types and durations of urinalysis testing, treatment modes, etc. In the European Union alone, the most common primary drug of choice for those entering treatment in 2017 ranged from heroin in 42 percent of nations, cannabis in 28 percent, amphetamines and opioids in 11 percent each, and cocaine and “other” in only 4 percent each (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction).

Despite this, there is a larger number of similarities between drug courts than there are stark differences. In the US, being in recovery generally means living a healthy life free of drugs and crime. In Belgium, the definition is similar: recovery is “about establishing a fulfilling, meaningful life” within legal boundaries. The main goal of drug courts likewise remains the same, exemplified in a Glasgow drug court reference manual as “reducing drug misuse and…offending behavior.” Regardless of where they are in the world, drug treatment courts are focused on providing rehabilitative and restorative justice to offenders facing drug addiction and/or mental health issues.

Most resources concerning drug treatment courts are produced by institutions within the US. After all, this is where the model was first developed. However, valuable research and case studies also exist in other nations. Studying the implementation processes, operating procedures, and success rates of courts in other countries can help us better understand how our own culture influences our ideas of justice and rehabilitation. Observing these practices may also provide out-of-the-box ideas for improvement.

Beyond this, it’s important to realize that, since most resources are produced in the US, the standards and examples set by American drug treatment courts not only affect our own citizens, but also the citizens of foreign countries. We’ve set an example by creating the drug court model, and now we must set the example for maintaining evidence-based practices and consistent results. The existence of drug courts around the world is not only a learning opportunity, it is also a reminder of why we must create the most effective programs possible.

Celebrate World Day for International Justice with us on July 17th by checking out our National Drug Court Database for drug treatment court programs all around the United States at