A Chance For Europe: The Way Towards Just And Effective Drug Policies

European NGO Council on Drug Policy This text was written by Joep Oomen, with the help of Peter Webster, Peter Cohen, Fredrick Polak, Stijn Goossens, Job Joris Arnold, Paul von Hartman and Farid Ghehioueche.

Dear delegates,

This statement is presented to you by ENCOD, a collective of non-governmental organisations representing a large contingent of European citizens who are affected and concerned by current drug policies, and who wish to replace them with policies that are more just and more effective. At this moment ENCOD consists of 75 member organisations.

We are grateful for the opportunity to speak on this conference as one of the first non-governmental representatives to do so. As a consequence of our organisation's independence, however, you may well hear some things that you are unaccustomed to at these kinds of events. We sincerely hope you will be able to give fair and thoughtful consideration to our suggestions for designing the global guidelines for a new 8 year plan on drugs in the European Union.

Lessons from the past

The current 5 year plan, the one that was adopted by the Council of Ministers in 1999, articulated some clear objectives. Therefore, it is now possible to measure the progress made by EU institutions and member states. These announced objectives were:

- a significant reduction of availability of illicit drugs,
- a significant reduction in prevalence of illicit drug use,
- a significant reduction of drug related health damage, drug related crime, money laundering and trafficking of precursor chemicals, and
- an increase in the number of successfully treated drug addicts.

All the best available evidence suggests that of these 6 objectives, only one can be said to have met with some success: an increase in the number of persons treated. But isn't this is a dubious achievement, if we recognise that many of the individuals who go into treatment do so only because they wish to avoid sanctions or fines after being detained by police for minor quantities of illicit drugs? Can we point to success if in fact many of these people do not really need treatment at all, as surveys in several countries reveal to be the case?

According to the latest figures of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, production and consumption of illicit drugs has increased again since 1998. Also thanks to figures from UNODC, it can be calculated that every second, more than 12.500 EUROs changes hands worldwide through the sale of illegal drugs. Since production costs are known to represent less than 1% of this amount, it becomes quite obvious why the illicit drug trade is a key engine behind organised crime and, as we have seen recently, terrorism. We must insist that it is only the illegality of drugs, and thus the easy and large profits to be made in their trafficking, that connects drugs with terrorism and organised crime, which are using our bank system to launder money and attack the democratic roots of our societies.

According to calculations of the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction, in the 1990s approx. 3.6 billion EUROs was spent annually on drug related law enforcement in just 11 countries of the European Union. That means 10 million EUROs a day. Experts maintain that police operations against international drug trafficking could only be successful in reducing the profits of the trade if they are able to seize 70 to 80 % of the produced amounts. At the moment, they are not able to intercept more than 10-20%, and some authorities insist even this is a gross over-estimation. And even if they succeeded in stopping more drug shipments, the resulting impact would very likely be only temporary, and a change of smuggling routes and drug-production areas would soon see a restoration of the drug flow. In the meantime, more impure and even bogus drugs would be seen on the streets, with probable adverse health consequences for drug users. In the long run, prohibition cannot succeed in reducing the drug problem, much less solving it. History shows that in fact the opposite is true.

Local authorities show the way

This EU summit on drugs is the first one that counts with the presence of the new member states from Central and Eastern Europe. Here, the gradual integration with Western Europe has unfortunately led to increased drug use, demand for treatment, increase of HIV/AIDS and other bloodborne diseases and problems related to drug trafficking. The drug phenomenon appears to be a part of the general process of globalisation, which means it is difficult to control. But the harms related to it can be controlled in a better way, as is the case in many EU countries today.

Within the circles of political, legal and health authorities that deal with the issue in Europe on a local level, it is now well understood that persecution of drug consumption is counterproductive. Like tight-rope walkers, local authorities are balancing on the tension between the law, which is still designed to eliminate drug use through policing and prohibition, and the pragmatic application of law, where prohibition has already been replaced by harm reduction almost everywhere in Europe.

This tension creates rather absurd situations. It is absurd to allow people to possess three grammes of cannabis but not allow them to buy it. It is absurd to provide someone with sterile needles but not with good quality heroin for a price that does not require him or her to commit crimes and prostitution.
The combination of prohibition and harm reduction must sooner or later collapse. Local authorities will end up opposing their national colleagues, above all in situations where the circumstances become worse, as has been the case in the past few years. In Italy in February this year, regional authorities openly disagreed with a law proposal introduced by Interior Minister Fini, who wanted to re-criminalise drug consumption that had been decriminalised in 1993 following a referendum. In the Netherlands a new directive of the national government to decrease the number of coffeeshops in the country was frustrated by the resistance of municipalities that host such shops, and did not want them to disappear.

Local authorities have a much better knowledge of the drug issue; and that is because they have become used to listening to people who are in daily contact with local reality. They are aware of the impact of their decisions on the lives of normal people. They know that harm reduction is the key to tackling the issue of problematic drug consumption. The characteristics of this problematic consumption have not changed for the past 5 years. As was recognised by the director of the EMCDDA in the 2002 annual report, this proves the success of harm reduction, considering the fact that drug use itself has increased.

On the other hand, international agencies such as the UNODC, do not worry about being held accountable by citizens. Therefore they continue to warn against the practices of harm reduction, insisting on dubious arguments, such as that it would lead to an increase of drug use. This argument is nothing else but a seed of panic, that cannot be backed up by statistical data. The most recent report of the RAND Corporation, a well known research institute with an excellent reputation, indicates that it is not possible to make any connection between cannabis policies and the prevalence of cannabis consumption. This means that in countries with liberal policies towards cannabis, the prevalence of use is not necessarily higher or lower than in countries with restrictive policies. The same tendency can be seen in the annual reports of the EMCDDA: decriminalisation of drug use does not increase use, it only diminishes crime and social exclusion, which should be important goals of EU policy.

A proposal for change

As a platform of citizens, we are convinced that the only way to really minimise all harms related to drug production, distribution and consumption is to change the basic logic of traditional drug policies: to stop thinking it is possible to reduce the use and production of drugs by force, let alone fully eradicate them. In other words, our recommendation is to stop prohibiting and start regulating. This is not an ideological position; it is simply a prediction of the logical order of events that will take place, sooner or later. Just as has happened with rules for automobile traffic and other risk-prone activities in modern European society, we will end up implementing a drug policy that aims at public safety and sustainability, and adopt a legal framework that facilitates this policy.

Only when society through its legitimate representatives regains control of the drug market, will it be able to get to grips with all the social evils that are related with it today. Europe, traditionally a place where humanitarian values have been developed, should start to conceive a different policy. Therefore we in ENCOD have developed a proposal for a new international agreement on the regulation of Production, Trade and Consumption of Drugs (including those that are legal today).

According to this agreement, every single country in the world should be allowed to establish its own mechanisms to regulate the production and consumption of drugs, and form bilateral agreements with other countries concerning the supply of drugs they cannot produce themselves. Sustainable relationships could be fostered between drug producers and consumers, based on mutual respect that includes the recognition of the fact that fair trade relationships serve mutual benefits. Establishment of basic health care and education facilities, measures to avoid environmental damage and mechanisms to ensure food security, fair prices and market access for any products, also including legal outlets for plants like coca leaves, cannabis and opium, will contribute to a rationalization of drug production.

In fact, awareness of the true value of the sustainable, organic agricultural resource that the mentioned plants represent, could lead to introduction of a whole range of applications that are benefitial to human kind. In the case of cannabis or hemp, there is no other species that even comes close when considering organic production of biofuels, vegetable protein, herbal therapeutics, paper, cloth, building materials and thousands of other essential products.

Regulation of the market will act to counter the intervention of unscrupulous middlemen with measures that protect the interests of producers and consumers. These can include quality control in places of consumption, accurate information on prices and quality to producers and consumers, and methods of controlled distribution. Countries which decide to allow the distribution of drugs could do this either through the public provision or through the private market. Social and health authorities could be supervising the drug trade to great advantage, and specific limitations (with regards to advertising or sale to minors, for instance) could be maintained.

Access to drugs that present significant risks to the user must obviously be controlled in one way or another. However, this regulatory scheme should not be so restrictive as to produce a significant illegal market in the substance. Once a significant illicit trade in a substance appears, we can be sure that our policy is a failure and bound to contribute to, rather than minimize the harms of the commerce and use of that substance. Therefore, the lack of impact of the current UN Conventions is best illustrated by the dimension of the criminal industry, which, as mentioned before, makes 12.500 EUROs a second dealing drugs - that's 45 million EUROs an hour.

A chance for Europe

Now what can you do to achieve this major shift in drug policy, a change that will undermine the world's largest criminal and terrorist interests and save at least 10 million EUROs which is now being spent each day on drug related law enforcement in the "old" EU alone? This money could instead be used in health care, development cooperation and in many other ways to improve living conditions of millions of people around the world.

Remember that if drug prohibition were a commercial enterprise, it would soon go broke. However, it is a public enterprise, that is run with tax payers' money. And contrary to what one might expect from open and democratic societies, there is virtually no debate on the question whether it should continue. This has certainly been due in part to the reluctance of politicians to even discuss policies which run counter to obsolete and counterproductive U.N. mandates. So, before you repeat the same rhetoric today and tomorrow, blaming all the problems that are related to drugs to the fact that they exist (as they have done since the very start of human civilisation), please reconsider the approach that has been taken to deal with them in the past century.

Remember that European countries were always quite reluctant to accept the universal prohibition of drugs in the XXth century. The way illicit and licit use of drugs was defined had little to do with science, but rather with an ideological and geopolitical purpose to establish worldwide control.

And remember that in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th Century, tobacco and coffee were prohibited, and the failure of these policies led to a regime of control of these substances within a legal framework. That control regime was later extended to alcohol as well, and its aim was the reduction of harm to consumers while at the same time generating significant tax revenues for the state. We should be as wise as our ancestors, and learn the lessons of history if we are to provide the leadership necessary in this increasingly complex world.

For more information, please contact: ENCOD at [email protected]

This text was written by Joep Oomen, with the help of Peter Webster, Peter Cohen, Fredrick Polak, Stijn Goossens, Job Joris Arnold, Paul von Hartman and Farid Ghehioueche.

home page: http://www.encod.org/index.htm