SPEECH OF JOEP OOMEN AT THE PUBLIC HEARING ON EU DRUG POLICY, on 23 February 2010, European Parliament, Brussels
Thanks to Michail Tremopoulos for taking this excellent initiative of bringing us together here today in the European Parliament, the house of more than 500 million Europeans, it is amazing to see here how 23 languages and 27 nationalities can get along with eachother. I guess you truly have to know the meaning of the word tolerance in order to work here.
By organising this meeting you understand what your work here is about – you are not only here to represent your voters but also to bridge the gap between citizens and decision makers and as we will see in a minute this kind of bridge is extremely useful when it comes to the drugs debate.
Also thanks to the European Commission for your presence here, for your willingness to come and listen to what civil society representatives have to say about a policy that you are at least partly responsible for. We know of course that you are not personally responsible, that it is just your job to represent those who are politically responsible: the EU Commissioners on Justice, and Home Affairs, and the representatives of the 27 national governments on drug policy who meet each month in the so-called Horizontal Drug Group.
We form in each our own way a European Union. You as European parliamentarians have been voted by the citizens, you have been given the mandate to decide on policies that are effective, which means policies that go for the best possible result with the available resources, and with the less harm as possible.
You as civil servants working for the European Commission you have been given the mandate to carry out the policies that the Parliament decides on. You should make sure that the available resources are spent well and that the policies that are carried out by national governments are based on the best possible evidence, so that European Union Member States can repeat each others good experiences and avoid each others bad ones.
The other people in this room are then the representatives of that part of civil society directly concerned or affected by drug policies, of citizens who daily experience the direct impact of them, who see the true consequences of drug policies and laws for society. Collectively we possess a lot of expertise on how the drug phenomenon functions and how it can be managed. In a good working democracy, those who make and take decisions, parliamentarians and civil servants, would want regularly to hear from this part of civil society – our testimonies can give you a good indication on the question if your policies are working or not.
Last year the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drugs Addiction, the research centre on the drug issue that collects all official information from member states, published a study on the drug related public expenditure in the EU. According to this study based on official figures, it appears in the EU 40 billion euro per year on a policy that is aimed at reducing supply and demand of criminalized drugs. That is to say that every EU citizen, babies and ancient people included, pays 80 euro per year to maintain drug policies.
Since 10 March 2009, the European Union has in its possession a report made by expert researchers from respected centres such as the Rand Corporation and the Trimbos Institute, who have investigated for one year the impact of drug policies on the drugs market. Their conclusion is: drug policies are not just uncapable of reaching their goals (reducing supply and demand for illegal drugs), they are also counter-productive. In short police and justice activity aimed at reducing drug supply fails to prevent the continued availability of illegal drugs at low price. In stead it produces unintended harms. Treatment can reduce some drug-related harms, but not consumption levels. Prevention efforts lack effectiveness.
The future challenge is to find a way to build on these lessons so that positive benefits of policies are increased and negative averted.
Almost no discussion has taken place since the report has been published. Both at national and supranational level, decision-makers are afraid to touch this issue. They do anything to avoid any serious debate on the fundamental course of drug policies.
Just the conclusion that police and justice operations in drug related matters are having no impact at all is something that in times of economic crises should deserve some attention from Parliamentarians and journalists.
The Reuter Trautmann report essentially repeats what researchers and honest police officers also have said: The money related to police hours, lawyers, judges, prisons, customs to stop drugs from coming on the European market is wasted: Overall levels of consumption don’t go down, for some products like cocaine and heroin prices go down which show that availability increases. So the war on drugs does not work.
But it is even worse than that. It is generating huge damage to society:
first of all it creates a huge illegal drug industry that does not apply any quality controls for its products nor age limits for its clients, and fuels armed groups and other forms of criminal activity
secondly it creates a huge security industry that monopolises resources of police and justice for drugs, that can not be used for other forms of crime. According to the Reuter Trautmann report arrests go up every year at the same time seizures of drug money remain little. So we go after the small ones not after the big money.
Prevention is “handicapped by lack of proven effectiveness” which means that officially it is still thought as a way to warn people against drugs. While the real problem lies in the living conditions for tens of millions children in socially deprived areas around Europe who on a very early age come in contact with all kind of substances. In their areas there is plenty of money to chase drug dealers, but no money to paint schools.
Drug policy today deliberately create an illegal environment with many negative consequences for many millions of people, increasing their health, legal and social problems, while at the same time, very little is being done to prevent the introduction of young people into this illegal environment, and almost nothing against the people who benefit most from it.
We could add to this that a policy that denies the usefulness of substances is a way to deprive society of the many benefits that people could have from them if they were legally available. The list of diseases that can be treated successfully with prohibited drugs is impressive. Hemp is probably one of the best answers to our environmental challenges, as a sustainable crop that can substitute oil, wood and cotton, among others. Facilitating a legal market for fair trade coca leaves from South America could strengthen just and sincere global trade relationships. Taxation of the drugs market would mean a significant contribution to the state budget.
The conclusions of the Reuter Trautmann report are not in any way surprising. Who reads the Evaluations of Past Drug Action Plans and Strategies (and you can find some of them on the CD that you have received), who reads the annual reports of the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction, knows already for years that current drug policies are not based on the best evidence, they do not try to obtain the best possible results with the available resources, and they certainly do not avoid harm.
So what is the news today. The news is that here we have a report that has been paid for by the European Commission, that is by EU tax payers of course, but anyway, that the highest political authoritity in the European Union has now received, a report that gives the proof that current drug policies are failing. We need to end drug prohibition and we need to do it fast. In times of crisis we can no longer allow a public expenditure of 80 euro per citizen per year to be wasted in a policy that does not appear to have any benefit and at the same time generates problems and harm in the lives of millions of individuals and their surroundings.
So the big question is: what can we now expect of the European Union?
Europe should look into its history. During the 16th, 17th and 18th Century, tobacco and coffee were prohibited on this continent, 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 reducing 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.
Initially there are always good intentions. In the early 1990s it was French president Mitterand who made the first steps towards sharing and comparing information on drugs among EU member states, in order to develop an alternative European approach that would be different than the US war on drugs. In the initial phases of what later became the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction, many Civil Society Organisations were invited to take part and form a regular information source to the making of EU drug policy. But once the centre was definitively established, in October 1993 all formal relationships between the EMCDDA and civil society organisations were cut off. It was said that some Member States (France among them) were against it.
For the next 13 years, we heard and read many promises by EU authorities on civil society involvement in the making and implementing of a EU strategy on drugs. But nothing concrete happened.
In January 2006 European Commission representative Francisco Fonseca promised to install a budget of “somewhere between 0 and 26 million Euros to facilitate efforts to include the demands of citizens and their organisations in the European policies and strategies.”
In 2007 then a budget of 100.000 euros per year was created to finance what was called the Civil Society Forum on Drug Policies. This Civil Society Forum is a yearly meeting of 26 organisations working on drug issues, that have been selected by the European Commission through a completely intransparent selection procedure.
After the three sessions that have been held until now this Forum can best be described as a reality show – people are called to Brussels to spend I,5 day in a room, where they are supposed to give the impression of people who know something about the issue, as it is an honour to be invited to Brussels, but who then are confronted with a host, the European Commission who essentially says: speak, but unless you support the policies that are currently carried out, don’t expect that official Europe is going to listen to anything you have to say,.
We asked the Commission why it is so hard for them to enable a sincere discussion to take place on the impact of current policies and the possible alternatives? We received the answer, and we hope that today we will hear a different answer, that the Commission cannot take any political initiatives on drug issues – as Member States are divided on the issue and don’t want the Commission to take a stand.
This argument is not totally valid. In the first place, it is not right that the Commission does not take a stand on drug policies. We saw that in the end of 2008, when the European Commission was suddenly able to act when again under French presidency this time of Nicolas Sarkozy, a totally new concept of civil society involvement was introduced. In the Action Plan 2009 – 2012 it was written that “It is time to put the people of Europe at the centre of policy in this field, to get Europe’s citizens more involved. It is time for a European Alliance on Drugs”.
This European Alliance on Drugs is designed as a propaganda campaign to warn European citizens about the dangers of drugs. Organisations and individual persons are invited to suscribe to a message that supports the course of current drug policies.
So while on the one hand the Commission did everything to block the initiatives of civil society organisations to inform policy makers about a public policy that is completely failing, on the other hand, it put resources in a top down propaganda campaign to defend this public policy.
Secondly, with this argument the Commission plays a game of hide and seek.
Currently the absence of European coordination of drug policies is causing huge problems in cities like Maastricht, only 125 kilometres from here where lord mayor Gerd Leers has been struggling for many years to make the best out of the impossible Dutch policy on cannabis. This policy tolerates the sale of personal quantities in coffeeshops, but prohibits the cultivation for these same shops. In the border areas such as Maastricht there is an illegal industry behind cannabis cultivation caused by the increasing demand of tourists from Belgium, Germany and France who prefer to drive to the Netherlands over buying cannabis on the black market at home.
Lord mayor of Maastricht Gerd Leers and many of his colleagues have asked for years for permission to start an experiment with the legal cultivation of cannabis for the coffeeshops and thus compete with the illegal market. The request has been systematically denied by the central Dutch government that refers to sanctions from Brussels in case the Netherlands would take such a measure; but when Gerd Leers came to this Parliament on 21 April 2005 to explain the need for a European approach to this issue the European Commission replied that he was knocking at the wrong door, as Brussels is only mandated to decide on the control of precursors and money laundering “Member states are autonomous to decide which drug policies they will adopt;
So here you can see how your European dream can turn into your worst nightmare, Brussels as an unreachable scapegoat of an invisible elite that pull the strings behind major political processes, with extremely unclear structures for decision-making and highly insufficient democratic control.
The original call for harmonising policies in Europe is based on the recognition that European integration and disappearing border control have direct consequences for the expansion of any phenomenon in society that you can think of. Europe is a patchwork of countries which have similar questions but different answers. It provides us with a wonderful opportunity to compare and analyse statistics, recognise the rational processes behind, and pick up the experiences of pragmatic, evidence-based, forward thinking policies that are currently taking place all over Europe, on local level, by talented people in public and private sectors. It is possible to collaborate and develop effective policies, which means repeat each others good experiences and avoid each others bad ones.
Due to the political complexity of the drug debate authorities have difficulties in drawing these conclusions alone.
Therefore we call today on the Commission to use all resources it has available (to start with the 100.000 for the CSF) to organise as soon as possible a summit on the future of EU drug policies. On this summit, the responsible authorities from the EU Member States, of national, regional and local level, Members of national parliaments and the European Parliament as well as a decent representation of European civil society should be present.
The objective of this summit should be to explore the margins in Europe to apply innovative drug policies, based on the lessons of the Reuter Trautmann and the experiences of local authorities and Civil Society Organisations who are already familiar with some alternative policies based on the acceptance of drug use.
The Commission would not need to take any political stance on the issue it would just facilitate the room for allowing the information to get through, to enable the encounter between authorities and affected citizens, so a serious dialogue can take place.
We are of course available to work out this proposal in detail, and ask herewith the collaboration of the European parliament to make sure this summit or a similar initiative is taken soon.
Finally we need to remember that the ultimate goal of any effort to end the global war on drugs has to be the modification of the three UN Conventions on Drugs, either through a revision of their text or through the loss of their value that would occur if one or more countries would renounce the Conventions. The European Union is an important intermediate level between national states, a place where coalitions could be built between these countries to either propose a serious debate on one or more aspects on drug policy or agree to launch an proposal to repeal the Conventions
In two weeks the next CND meeting takes place again in Vienna, and the European Union delegates will have to express a common point of view.
Therefore this hearing should send a clear message to the EU delegations in this CND meeting. Europe should defend a rational attitude on the drug issue instead of an emotional or moral one. Let us stop thinking that reducing the use or production of drugs by force is possible. Lets start thinking that drugs could be something we could benefit from, if we learn how to live with them.
Some sceptics say we need a drug disaster, like thousands of people dying in the streets like is currently the case in Mexico, but then as the adverse effects from an adulterated drug, before authorities wake up.
Our hope is fixed on those European politicians and bureaucrats who have the insight and courage to know when it is their moment to make a historical contribution, in this case challenge the prohibitionist approach at the right moment at the right place.
I hope we can speak today about ways to establish a sound relationship between producers and adult consumers of psychoactive substances without the intervention of corrupt middlemen or law enforcement personnel. Let’s design models of drug policy that effectively improve people’s lives, not deteriorate them. Let’s build a European society where people want to live in, not escape from.
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