THE ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICY IN EUROPE
NR. 36 DECEMBER 2007
A TESTCASE FOR EUROPE
The European Union hosts almost 500 million inhabitants, 23 official languages and 27 countries with each their own cultural, political and social traditions. Cooperation between these countries has been crucial to ensure peace and prosperity on the continent for the past 50 years. Yet, many people tend to view “Europe” as a more or less artificial construction of the bureaucrats, with unclear structures for decision-making and insufficient democratic control. Efforts to give the EU a solid legal basis to develop common policies are met by many with scepticism and fears to have their lives “ruled by Brussels”.
In theory, the European Union offers an excellent opportunity to compare the impact of different policies and facilitate the exchange of information and experience resulting in both good and bad practices. As such, co-operation in the field of drug policy, both between countries and institutions as well as civil society organisations, could be extremely helpful for developing effective approaches without making too many avoidable errors in the process. However, in practice, the lack of democratic control on drug-related decisions made at the EU level further contributes to the concept of a totalitarian superstate.
Since 2005 the European Council of (Justice and Home Affairs) Ministers has had the power to make new synthetic drugs subject to criminal provisions in the entire European Union if the Scientific Committee of the EMCDDA advises the Council to do so. In July this year, the European Council and Commission proposed a ban on the synthetic drug 1-benzylpiperazine (BZP). This substance is currently not controlled in several European countries (among them Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom).
On 14 November, the European Parliament approved an amendment to the resolution making control measures proportionate to the health risks of the substance, which are still to be researched and proven. But since this issue belongs to the area of Justice, in which the opinion of the European Parliament is not binding, it remains to be seen if this amendment will have any effect on the decision on which the justice ministers seem to have agreed: criminalization notwithstanding lack of studies and proofs on the risks.
According to the latest annual report of the EMCDDA, the total drug-related public expenditure by EU Member States is calculated to lie somewhere between 13 and 36 billion euros per year, i.e. between 35 and 98 million euros per day. Any public policy with this kind of price-tag should be closely evaluated, so lessons can be learned in order to correct approaches with an undesired effect and strengthen those with a desired effect.
However, EU institutions have great problems to implement such evaluation, let alone to publish its results. A closer look at the report of the latest meeting of the Horizontal Working Party on Drugs (composed of government representatives from the Member States as well as the European Commission), a meeting that took place in September 2007 in Lisbon, shows that EU Member States are unable to produce one single concrete indicator with which to measure the impact of their drug policies. Nor is it possible to discover a clear vision other than the objective of maintaining a political status quo “in which everything remains as it is and none of the super-salaried bureaucrats has any problems ever“. (Peter Cohen, University of Amsterdam)
Yet, there are various interesting developments to speak about. On 19 November, the BBC reported on the initial results from a London pilot scheme where heroin users have been injecting themselves with heroin in a clinic over the past two years, suggesting it has significantly reduced drug use and crime. Doctors and nursing staff say the lives of those on the scheme have stabilised because they are not buying from street dealers and getting involved in crime. Likewise, Danish Health Minister Lars Rasmussen announced he wants to start prescribing heroin to long term users in Denmark, after it appeared that this decision would count with a parliamentary majority. This brings the number of EU Member States where heroin prescription is an integrated part of government policy to a total of 6.
Meanwhile research from the US suggests that cannabinoids may be responsible for blocking the genes that provoke the development of breast and other forms of cancer. The research had been carried out by the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute and published in the November issue of Molecular Cancer Therapeutics Additionally, the MedWire News published a study of UK researchers who concluded that there is no evidence for any causal relationship between the use of cannabis and the risk of schizophrenia.
Finally, an even less usual suspect, UK prime minister Gordon Brown, announced in The Independent that he will propose paying Afghan farmers more than they earn from their poppy harvests in return for ceasing to grow the crop, in an effort to curb the influence of the Taliban. According to the annual report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the British campaign to destroy poppy production has been an abject failure. Brown’s statements may cause tensions with the US administration, which would prefer to implement aerial spraying to destroy poppies. But this measure is opposed by Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Downing Street has made it clear that Mr Brown will call for a more sympathetic approach to the farmers. “We have to work closely with the communities involved,” he said.
“Collaborating with those who are most involved” has been the official mantra of the European Union since the first reflections on a common drug policy began in 1986. In all official declarations on EU drug policies released in the past 20 years it has been said that civil society should be consulted and involved in the design and implementation of policies. However, the big question has been how to carry out this consultation in an area where transparency and democratic control is absent.
On 13 & 14 December, the European Commission has invited 26 civil society organisations, ENCOD among them, to the first meeting of a so-called Civil Society Forum on Drug Policy. Our presence is legitimate: the proposal for a serious debate on drug policies has been our main objective for the past 15 years. However, to make it a meaningful experience, the organisation of this forum needs to fulfil professional criteria of transparency and participation. If it does, this will create an excellent starting point for the dialogue. If not, it may become difficult to continue to believe in the good intentions behind it.
Until 10 December you can have your say on what ENCODs role should be on this forum.
By Joep Oomen (with the help of Peter Webster)