THE ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICY IN EUROPE
NR. 42 JUNE 2008
WHEN ARGUMENTS FAIL, BANS APPEAR
We are confronting a malicious policy disguised behind a façade of benign intentions. Public health and safety are invoked as arguments to maintain policies that result in the increase of harm in these same areas.
Real harm reduction is incompatible with prohibition.
Dutch Public Health Minister Ab Klink realises this. His proposal to ban 168 species of psychoactive mushrooms in the Netherlands was again postponed on May 29th, after several Dutch Parliament Members, encouraged by activists, posed critical questions to the minister that he will need to reply to in the coming weeks. All expert boards (including the International Narcotics Control Board, interestingly enough) have advised the minister not to impose a ban, as this will very likely lead to increased public health risks and an increase in the number of incidents.
Growing your own cannabis as a way to reduce harm to health and safety was accepted three years ago by the Belgian parliament. A piece of legislation was then introduced that would allow each adult citizen to cultivate one cannabis plant for personal use without aggravating circumstances. However, Belgian authorities do not respect this legislation. When the board members of Trekt Uw Plant, a legal association of cannabis producers and consumers, planted the seed of their personal plant in public on Worldwide Marijuana March Day on May 3d in Antwerp, they were arrested and accused of “growing cannabis in the possible presence of minors”. Two days later, when they repeated the action in a public field without any minors present, the police intervened against what was called the “privatisation of the public space”. In the press, the spokesman of the Antwerp police stated: “it is not because cannabis cultivation is being tolerated that we are going to allow people to do it.”
Even UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa has now embraced harm reduction as showed up at the annual International Harm Reduction Conference that was held from May 10 to 14 in Barcelona. Harm Reduction is a concept that everyone can agree with as long as certain logical implications of this policy are ignored. In a manifesto for real policy of harm reduction some Spanish associations of drug consumers as well as ENCOD tried to raise this issue at the Barcelona Conference.
As soon as it becomes clear that harm is produced not only by the drugs themselves, but by the fact that they are illegal, it becomes more difficult to find any universal agreement. And when proposals to reduce drug-policy-related harm are made outside the scope of the public and private health industry, nervousness and embarrassment enter the room. Suddenly people realise that in the current system, harm reduction is an act of resistance that may endanger their careers.
The only way forward is to bring this reality into the drug debate. In fact the experience of ENCOD at the second session of the Civil Society Forum on EU Drug Policy on May 20 and 21 showed that sometimes a real discussion can take place with authorities, even with people representing prohibitionist organisations. In this forum we may have started to be accepted as a necessary nuisance, people whose most radical proposals can not be used for anything without breaking the general framework, but people who do, in fact, contribute with serious issues.
At the UN level, ENCOD representative Fredrick Polak is playing a similar role, repeating his question to UNODCs Director Costa for the third time in Barcelona at the IHRC: how can one explain the relatively low consumption of cannabis in the Netherlands where this substance is legally available for adults. Actually, as we wrote before, Costa has now visited the Netherlands to find an answer to this question. In the days after the Barcelona Conference, he published a paper on his website which entitled: Amsterdam, city of tolerance tightening the rules”. After a few days, it disappeared from the site, apparently after the Dutch government had refused to accept it. Costa’s paper is merely one of the endlessly-repeated mantras of prohibitionists, completely unsupported by any scientific evidence.
The ENCOD General Assembly in Vitoria, organised in cooperation with the regional government of the Basque Country, comes at the right moment to take the next step in the development of ENCOD as an action network to spread the seed of doubt among the general population to suggest that maybe prohibition is not the best answer after all.
It is possible to challenge drug prohibition with few resources but with a determined attitude and with growing expertise on how to formulate a message and spread it. The use of mind-altering plants and substances has always been an essential part of human societies everywhere, something that cannot be banned by people in black or monopolised by people in white uniforms. By maintaining the idea of a world in which people can deal with the production, distribution and consumption of substances in a responsible way, a collective train of thoughts is set in motion towards the improvement of the present situation.
In Morocco a citizens platform calling for the legalisation of cannabis was formed, consisting of university professors and human rights activists. They have gathered enough evidence to maintain that growing hemp for industrial and cannabis for medicinal purposes is a sustainable option to develop the poor areas in the Rif mountains. Current programmes aimed at the eradication of hemp, carried out under pressure of the European Union, only contribute to increased poverty and higher revenues for the criminal organisations.
In Peru, Member of Parliament and former coca leader Elsa Malpartida has gathered evidence of a large number of human rights violations committed during erradication operations of coca leaves for the past 8 years, and denounced the Peruvian government before the Interamerican Human Rights Commission. For the first time in 30 years, this Commission has accepted the claims and will investigate them.
Likewise we in Europe should continue to challenge prohibition as a policy of “criminal negligence” which is causing two main harms to society:
The control of the drugs market by criminal syndicates with all that follows, including violence between rivalling gangs, corruption of officials, significant waste of policing and customs efforts and budgets, banking and currency problems related to money laundering, and so forth.
The impossibility of quality control, leading to the prevalence of bad quality products, often laced with substances far more dangerous, leading to many serious health problems.
By Joep Oomen (with the help of Peter Webster)