THE ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICY IN EUROPE
NR. 41 MAY 2008
THE FRONT LINE
Drug policy reform is on its way, but it is coming in slow motion. In the aftermath of the United Nations meeting that took place in Vienna last month, it is slowly but surely becoming clear for all involved that prohibition is a bankrupt policy. Even UNODC’s Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa discovered that his ill-advised crusade might be failing when his mailbox became filled with messages asking him the same question that ENCODs Fredrick Polak asked in Vienna: “Why is it that in Holland, where marijuana is accessible to any adult who would choose it, marijuana use is actually lower than the surrounding nations among adults as well as among 15/16 year olds?” This fact obviously contradicts the assumption that prohibition decreases usage of the prohibited item.
Costa did not answer this question, either because he could not, or because he did not want to. But at least it may have inspired him to pay a work visit to Amsterdam on April 22, and to include in his agenda a visit to the coffeeshop De Dampkring, in the centre of town. Here, he was told by Dampkring owner Paul: “Yes you could consider me a criminal, according to the law I may be. But that is not how I feel. I feel more like a wine seller. I am proud of what I sell to people, I am a cannabis consumer myself and want my clients to enjoy a healthy product.” At least Costa has heard these words. We will soon know if he has understood their meaning.
The day after Costa’s visit another soldier in the front line of the “war against drugs”, the president of the largest Dutch trade union of police-officers Hans Van Duijn declared publically that he believes the war on drugs should be ended. The resources that police officers invest in the fight against drugs are not justified by its results, says Van Duijn, while other forms of criminality receive too little attention. Of course Van Duijn took advantage of the fact that he is retiring in one month, so Justice Minister Hirsch Ballin (Christian-democrat) could let the statement go unchallenged. But still.
The complete failure of governments to come up with a decent answer to the question why their policies do not correspond with reality raises a question itself: how could it have come so far? Our democratic systems must be in a state of great disrepair if elected representatives are not able to correct a policy based on myths, /even/ when they are told so by people who are directly responsible for this policy?
On April 22, the European Parliament approved a report on the initiative of the European Commission to start a dialogue with civil society organisations on EU drug policy. The purpose of this dialogue, according to the EP, is “to bring about a direct contact with associations in the front line of the fight against drugs at the level of both prevention and rehabilitation.”
To increase the involvement of citizens in the official debate on drugs in the European Union was the reason ENCOD was founded in 1993. For the past 15 years we have tried to organise effective dialogue, between policy-makers, members of parliament and civil society organisations involved in the drug field in Europe, in order to make a common assessment of what is generally conceived as “the drug problem”.
These moments of dialogue never existed. Either some of “us” were invited to “their” conferences, or some of “them” showed up at “ours”. But at the moments when a concrete dialogue actually took place, the least that could be concluded was that the official discourse is lacking credibility. Such experiences become part of the individual and collective memory, and thus help to create the critical mass that is necessary to force the tides to turn.
The question is, will the moments of dialogue that we envisaged 15 years ago ever come to pass? ENCOD will continue to take part in the Civil Society Forum (the second session of which is planned to take place on May 20 and 21). However, the way that the Commission is planning to use the 3 million EURO a year that is meant to finance the involvement of civil society in drug policies makes clear which direction these dialogues will go.
Between March 10 and April 14, organisations had less than 20 days to edit a 25 page proposal to obtain funds from the budget line of Drug Prevention and Information. All insiders know that only professional fundraisers are capable of such an operation in so short time, and so, only professional organisations, already working with state support, will get the chance to benefit from this support. Most of these organisations are addicted to the most dangerous drug of all: tax money, and therefore not inclined to bother the European Commission with difficult questions.
The European Parliament has stated that it regrets the fact that the selection process to the dialogue process has been lacking in transparency, and encourages the Commission to remedy this problem. But in a letter to ENCOD, the Head of the Commission’s Antidrug Unit, Carel Edwards, washes his hands in innocence: “the Commission‘s room for manoeuvre is limited by the fact that the Member States hold most of the cards when it comes to drug policy.”
For the rest, the European Parliament report is rather confusing. It seems more like an effort in political correctness: the EP wants “civil society to explore ways of promoting use of substances derived from coca leaves for lawful use”, but it also wishes “to explore the possibilities of combating illegal poppy plantations by means of spraying which are not harmful to humans, animals and the environment”.
The most interesting point of the report seems to be the “call upon the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights to carry out an analysis on the effects of anti-drug policies and to assess their effectiveness, and whether and to what extent such policies have represented an infringement of individual rights. “
If every consumer of illegal drugs in Europe would present a case for the fact that the illegality of his product of choice infringes his individual rights on public health, non-discrimination, religion, a dignified life etc., the Fundamental Rights Agency would soon have to rent more office space. They are based in Vienna. Maybe there is some free space in Mr. Costa’s office…
By Joep Oomen (with the help of Peter Webster)