“The involvement of civil society on local level in every day practice”
Presentation to the 54th meeting of Permanent Correspondents of the Pompidou group
Thanks very much for this opportunity to speak on the subject of the involvement of civil society in the design and implementation of drug policies in Europe. I represent the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies, a platform of currently 86 organisations from 24 European countries. Our members represent citizens who are either directly or indirectly affected by drug policies, as users, relatives of users, health agencies, research institutes, policy think tanks, prevention workers, activists and others.
In short, we are a platform of organisations defending the interests of the people who are the target of drug policies, from peasants cultivating illegal crops in developing countries to street drug users in Europe’s big cities. Because of the current stigma on drugs, many of these people do not dare to speak out openly. However, if the figures of the European Monitoring Centre are accurate, we may conclude that ENCOD is defending the interests of at least 35 million European citizens. That is the same as the entire population of Poland.
That does not mean that we only refer to the interests of users. In our network there is a broad spectrum of expertise on harm reduction, which in many cases is an effective form of demand reduction, on prevention and on alternative models for applying drug control than the ones generated by the current state of affairs. The drug policy models that ENCOD and its members have developed until now have always taken into account the societal concerns with regards to the extension of the drug phenomenon, also the ones that are raised outside our community.
It is the common belief of the member organisations of ENCOD, that the basic logic of traditional drug policies, which is to eliminate the use, commercialisation and production of drugs, is creating more harms than benefits. We believe drug policy should aim at increasing public health, safety and sustainability. It should adopt a legal framework that facilitates this policy, just as has happened with other riskful phenomenons in modern European society, such as automobile traffic or the consumption of alcohol and tobacco.
However, we understand that Rome was not built in one day. We need to get involved in a discussion on the basis of arguments, which will have to conclude with decisions that reflect the concerns of all parties involved. On a local and national level, this discussion is already taking place, where on the international level, it has started only recently.
Through our activities, ENCOD and its members have achieved the flexibilisation of drug laws in many countries. In fact what we see in Europe today is a drug policy grey zone, whereas in most countries, drug control legislation and practice are two very different things. In many cases, it is up to the individual policeman or judge to apply the drug laws. We believe this grey zone is not an adequate solution, but do not want to paint it black again. In stead we want to use the platform we have created to exchange information, initiate and support harm reduction initatives that many of our members carry out on a daily base. Concerning the political debate, we try to bring different ingredients together in one approach with which we can go to political decision-makers and discuss it with them.
Our experiences are that progress is made when people start listening to each other. Solutions to problems can only be found through dialogue, and not through exclusion or confrontation. With regards to our lobby efforts, we also obtained progress at a moment where there were good working relationships with policy-makers. To name just one example: in 1995, we obtained a unanimously approved parliament motion in Luxemburg to legalise the import of traditional coca products like tea.
At the moment, there is an urgent need to open up dialogue with civil society at an international level too. This has been said before, but still this need has not been attended. We can see this in the current decision-making process that should lead to the formulation of the new EU Drug Strategy for 2005 – 2012
One of the aims of the EU Action Plan on Drugs for 2000-2004 called for the involvement of civil society in the elaboration of the action plan. In the mid-term evaluation of this action plan that was carried out in 2002, it was recommended to develop a strategy for strengthening co-operation with civil society in the field of drugs and organize a conference in 2004 to involve civil society in the future development of EU Drug Policy. The draft version of the new strategy issued by the Dutch presidency on 30 June 2004, mentioned that “a balanced approach to the drugs problem also requires adequate consultation with a broad group representative of the relevant NGOs and civil society”. The new European Constitution which was so proudly presented last week also contains some clear rules about the need for authorities to consult “affected groups” in their decision-making process.
To our knowledge, the new EU Drug Strategy has produced no strategy for co-operation with civil society, no conference has been planned, no adequate consultation with civil society has taken place. In the past months, ENCOD has presented a proposal to the members of the Horizontal Working Party on Drugs to organise a dialogue with the involved civil society organisations, not only ENCOD, in order to discuss the global guidelines for drug policy. The proposal has not been taken into account, as, according to the Dutch Presidency, “it did not fit in the procedure of the HDG meetings”.
Why is civil society involvement so important?
Civil society has a right to be consulted on the impact of drug policies, first of all because these have a huge impact on the lives of normal citizens.
But it is not only an issue of rights. Civil society involvement is crucial to policy-making as such. Look at the local level. Legal, medical and political authorities at a local level have become used to listening to people who are in daily contact with local reality. They are aware of the impact of their decisions on the lives of normal people. As a result they realise much easier what works and what does not. Our experience is that local authorities generally have a much better knowledge of the drug issue.
In the table shown on the screen you can easily see the reason for this.
The table shows the distribution of benefits and harms of the drug phenomenon. Both within the drug control apparatus and the drug market itself, it is clear that individual citizens carry the heaviest burden and enjoy the least benefits, while at the international established institutions at the top, the experience is exactly the opposite. So the people who are hit hardest by the drugs phenomenon have least access to the decision-making level. The more we can increase their involvement in the debate that takes place on the decision-making level, the more we may suppose that people at this decision-making level will be aware of the impact of their policies, and the more they will be able to adjust their policies to that.
The result is shown in the experiences of the past ten years in Europe. It shows that political, legal and health authorities that deal with the issue have started to understand that current policies based on prohibition are counterproductive. Like tight-rope walkers, authorities are balancing on the tension between the law, which is still designed to eliminate drugs due to the fact that international agreements leave no other options, and the pragmatic application of the law, where prohibition has already been replaced by harm reduction almost everywhere in Europe as you can see in the table shown on the screen.
In less then 10 years harm reduction measures have spread throughout Europe. A decade ago, there would have only been some incidental ‘yes’s’ under decriminalisation. Countries that still criminalise the consumption of drugs are now in minority, treatment based on maintenance therapies is now available in all countries, as is the case with needle exchange programmes, testing facilities of designer drugs are increasingly normal, and in some years we will see also user rooms and controlled distribution of heroin becoming an accepted phenomenon in the whole of Europe. In Switzerland, the latter has become official government policy, also thanks to the fact that there is a majority of the Swiss population that supports this. Of course it is also possible because Switzerland has not signed the 1988 UN Convention. Or maybe the Swiss are just less afraid of eventual repercussions than the EU + Canada + Australia and some Latinamerican and Asian nations together?
Still, much harm cannot be reduced yet. Let us look at just some phenomena that are largely related to ill-conceived drug policies and have a huge impact on the lives of citizens
1. Due to the fact that it is illegal the drug industry generates huge profits that are used for other criminal activities, including terrorism. According to UN figures, these profits could amount 400 billion euros/year (12.500 euro/second).
2. In the name of protecting the health of, among others, European citizens, the ‘war on drugs’ in developing countries is leading to massive environmental and human rights disasters.
3. Legal and policing costs in order to maintain drug policies are significant, while their impact on the capacity of drug trafficking organisations may be irrelevant.
4. Drug consumption is taking place in unsafe conditions, in irresponsible ways, involving chaotic lifestyles, generating significant harm to public health and safety.
We have the possibility to propose concrete policy models that deal with this issues in a different way. These models depart from the analysis that is represented by this figure on the screen – it makes a comparison between the effect of the policy on alcohol and on illegal drugs. Alcohol producers, dealers and users have lots of rights, they can work through legal channels, there is almost no taboo on alcohol use, it can take place in public places and people can talk relatively openly about it. In the case of drugs the opposite appears to be true, at least in the public perception of it. If we compare the effects of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drug use, as the World Health Organisation recommend we should do, we will find out that when people have rights and responsibilities, there will still be problems, but it will be a problem that from a societal point of view can be managed. Such is less and less the case with drugs.
A meaningful debate on drugs will surely put some sensible issues on the table. We can understand the reluctance to be involved in ideological discussions. Considering the great public impact and interest of the drug phenomenon on the European public, however, it is concerning to see the extremely tight margins of the current debate between civil society and authorities on the lessons that can be learned from the past.
ENCOD members have years of experience with working on a local level. Our proposals are based on the evidence of existing experiences, they are the fruit of the exchange between people and organisations who work on a local level. So of course we are very willing to support the policy-making process towards a coherent strategy on drugs in Europe. Also we are willing to feed the decision-making process on a national level, where we can. However, we are concerned with the conditions under which this contribution will take place. Currently ENCOD is a network of dedicated activists, who all work on a voluntary basis. You can not expect from us to come with detailed drug policy models without that we have the means to elaborate those through our networks of citizens.
So in order to operate with a minimal bureaucratic infrastructure, we need less than 100.000 euro a year. With this amount we can ensure the function of a small secretariat staffed with people who are citizens experts in the drug policy issue. The task of this secretariat would be among others to gather the relevant information from all ENCOD members in order to fuel the decision-making process at a pan-European level with details on the impact of drug policy at a local level. We can provide the details of this proposal if you like.
European authorities should take drugs seriously, and carry out the decision-making process in a transparent way, involving physical encounters with real voices, not only through the Internet. The process should take into account experiences that are gained on the street level in Europe on a daily base, and not only data and evaluations that are referring to realities that have passed. The clue to a solution in the current dilemma is to facilitate a process of dialogue with relevant civil society organisations, to enable them to take part in the design and the implementation of new Drug Strategies, in order therewith to ensure its implementation and impact. We are within ENCOD entirely dedicated to that purpose.Republish