Report on the second session of the Civil Society Forum on Drug Policy in the EU, 20 / 21 May 2008
By: Joep Oomen and Martin Barriuso, ENCOD representatives at the forum.
Read also the official report of the European Commission
The meeting took place in the Building of the Committee of the Regions in Brussels.
This time, 23 of 26 invited organisations effectively attended. There were no representatives of the Deutsche Hauptstelle für Suchtfrage, Eurasian Harm Reduction Network and of the European Forum on Urban Security. The International Harm Reduction Association had invited Stijn Goossens of the INPUD (International Network of People Who Use Drugs) on their delegation, so in all we were 24 organisations:
FOUNDATION FOR DRUG FREE EUROPE,
DRUG POLICY ACTION GROUP
CIVIL ASSOCIATION PRIMA
There was an observer of the EMCDDA.
The meeting was hosted by the Anti-Drugs Unit of the European Commission, led by Mr. Carel Edwards.
Mr. Edwards started the meeting by describing the current status of European drug policy, which he characterised as “fuzzy, but it is working”.
According to Edwards, the European Union is a forum for developing debate and global recommendations while at the level of Member States, real policies are made and carried out. In other words, the EU provides the “soft” approach to drug policies, while the national governments are in charge of the “hard” approach.
Edwards commented that at this moment there is no Member State that has any intention to change the basis for drug policies, which is the UN Conventions. Therefore the policies and programmes of the EU have to remain within the framework of the UN Conventions.
This year the EU Action Plan on Drugs 2005 – 2008 will come to an end. In the coming months, this plan will be evaluated. This evaluation will be based on information from the European Commission, EMCDDA, Europol and the Member States. We were told that the European Commission was very much looking forward to hear realistic and useful experiences from civil society organisations which could be taken aboard in the evaluation process.
In the first session of the Civil Society Forum in December, Mr. Edwards had told us that “there is no war on drugs in Europe”, and that we should always base our interventions in the forum on evidence.
On the second session of the CSF, ENCOD presented a letter to the European Commission on the fate on Aldo Bianzino. In October 2007 Bianzino was arrested in Italy for growing few cannabis plants and died in prison under mysterious circumstances a few days after.
Edwards received the letter and told us that this incident does not prove a war on drugs exists in Europe, and that in another continent, an organisation like ENCOD could not exist, as we would all be thrown in jail. He also stated that the European Commission is trying to promote the coherence between drug policies and human rights conventions inside and outside Europe, but that this is very difficult to realise in practice (as again national governments are responsible).
Commenting on the 2007 progress review of the current Action Plan , Maurice Galla of the European Commission then stated that the availability of drugs does not seem to diminish, and that no data seem to indicate that supply reduction is successful. He also noted that the majority of arrests are related to possession of cannabis.
Finally, Mr. Galla stated that the new Action Plan would focus on establishing quality standards for interventions such as treatment, harm reduction and prevention, as well as on sharing best practices and rolling out programmes that had proven to be succesful. The plan would set concrete ambitions, such as reduction of drug-related deaths, improvement of the availability of data, further promotion of alternative development in producer countries and strengthening “evidence-based” policies. Galla stated that EU drug policy should be recogniseable as a balanced and integrated approach based on ensuring fundamental human rights and freedoms, and invited the participants to comment these goals and to reflect upon the question if EU policy added any value to the policies caried out at national level, as well as to the work of NGOs.
After this introduction, we were divided in two working groups that each would produce some comments on the current Action Plan and some recommendations for the next Action Plan (2009-2012) which will be elaborated in the coming months. The deadline of the first report is 14 July, a first public version will be ready in the end of September, and the final approval will take place before the end of the year.
These working groups lasted the whole first day. We presented the ENCOD statement, in which we question the value of an evaluation when no proper data are available to indicate if the action plan has been a success or not. We also suggested to base the new Action Plan on the recommendations of the European Parliament, which in the end is the only legitimate representation of European civil society.
In both working groups, interesting discussions took place. Most people participated actively and constructively to the discussion. Some people from prohibitionist organisations such as ECAD and EURAD intervened, but as soon as they suggested to include the ideal of a “drug free Europe” etc. in the next Action Plan, silence felt in the room and it was clear nobody endorsed this kind of recommendations.
Most discussions took place on how to ensure quality standards for health interventions, including prevention, the situation in prisons as well as the need to integrate drug policies in broader social policies aimed at poverty, social exclusion, gender equality, etc.
PARSEC recommended to include a reference to the need for organising pill testing at rave parties and discotheques, indicating that this practice was countered by law enforcement agencies, which in fact worsens the problems.
We tried several times to raise questions concerning the illegal status of drugs as a major factor in causing drug problems, and suggested to stop the elaboration of the action plans and first carry out a profound evaluation of the concrete impact of current policies. We also suggested to increase the legal use of prohibited plants as an element in alternative development programmes in producer countries. The representative of the European Commission advised the forum not to include this kind of recommendations, as they would never be accepted by the Member States.
He also mentioned that it would be difficult to obtain a consensus on this kind of recommendations among the members of the CSF, but this could not always be proven, as a discussion on the crucial issue, the impact of prohibition on the drug phenomenon, did not take place. It was interesting to note that the only loud opposition against having such a debate came from un unsuspected actor, namely the French Harm Reduction Association.
The next day the rapporteurs of the two working groups (ENCOD being one of them) delivered their report. In the following discussion, it was generally agreed that zero tolerance should not be the basis of drug policies in Europe, and that there should be room for initiatives to prevent unnnecessary harms to occur in the grey zone created by the (be it minimal) tolerance of the drug phenomenon.
The fact that in the majority of European prisons it is impossible to obtain a drug free world should be sufficient evidence for the statement that a drug free world is impossible, and can only be obtained with policies that result in gross violations of human rights. Mr. Edwards concluded this session with a statement in which he acknowledged that difficult issues should not be avoided. He stated that even if interventions such as pill testing could not be promoted on a European level, given the opposition to this kind of initiatives in several Member States, the need to implement them could surely be defended.
ENCOD made a final suggestion to include in the next agenda of the Civil Society Forum a discussion on the general course of drug policies, and to have an external moderator to chair the sessions, so the European Commission would not have to play different roles at the same time.
The next session of the CSF is expected to take place early 2009.
The Commission will make a new call for proposals for civil society organisations to make apllications to this programme in the beginning of September 2008. Organisations can make applications for financial support for
Transnational actions that are aimed to set up networks, increase knowledge base, raise awareness, drug use prevention, monitor, implement and evaluate EU Action Plans
Involve civil society in the implementation and development of the EU Drugs Strategy and Action Plans.
Monitor, implement and evaluate the implementation of specific actions under the Drug Action Plans 2005-2008 and 2009-2012,
Once the call for applications will be opened every interested organisation has a period of two months to apply. But as the procedure will be similar as the last call in April, intersted organisations can already start now preparing their call and just make sure they use the correct documents in their definitive proposal.
The rules for obtaining funding will be: project duration of max. 3 years, EU funds up to 80% of total eligible costs, the minimum requested EC grant is 75.000 euro.
ENCODs role in this forum will continue to be that of expressing the voice of citizens who are directly affected by the policies on drugs and are not or underrepresented in the other organisations: consumers of cannabis and other drugs, their relatives, health workers, people working in the legal industry related to drugs, as well as independent experts and activists.
ENCOD has the right to remain in this forum until 2009, when there will be made a new selection of candidates, who can apply again regardless if they were in or out this time.
This second session was better organised than last time.
Most people were better prepared, and sometimes a real discussion could take place, also with people representing prohibitionist organisations. In fact the most active contribution of prohibitionist organisations consisted in highlighting the need to invest in prevention programmes, while also they were obliged to acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to measure the effectiveness of these programmes.
The atmosphere has improved also thanks to a more open attitude of the representatives of the European Commission, who may have started to accept us as a necessary nuisance, people whose most radical proposals can not be used for anything without breaking the general framework, but people who contribute with serious issues.
Several comments (from us and others) highlighting the need to extend the scope and coverage of harm reduction initiatives actually made it to the final report. Of course this does not mean that they will be included in the Action Plan, or even in the discussion on this Plan during the meetings of the Horizontal Drug Group (consisting of all most important drug officials of the Member States). But at least the main tone of the Civil Society Forum is that the current status quo should be challenged, and this is also thanks to ENCODs presence.
This conclusion will further be discussed at the ENCOD General Assembly in Vitoria in June.
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