Former EU Drug Czar: drug policy is still a “middle rail issue”

February 25, 2013

Drugreporter interviewed the former head of the European Commissions drug unit, Carel Edwards to discuss the chances of global shift on drug policies, how the EU deals with the psychoactive substances, and if more competence has to be given to Brussels in regulating drug issues.

Drugreporter (DR): How did you start to deal with the drug policies in the European Commission? Did you choose the drug unit, or did the drug unit choose you?

Carel Edwards (CE): I chose the drug unit, the post was vacant in 2003 and I had been doing the setting up of the infrastructure for a new directorate general for justice and home affairs. And after 4-5 years doing bureaucracy, I wanted a political file.

DR: Your motivation was doing something drug related or just to get a more political file?

CE: I wanted to get involved with policy making. The interesting thing about drugs policy, is that it isn't really one of the competences of the European Union. And yet we felt that you couldn't develop justice and home affairs at a European level, without also including drug policy.

DR: In your opinion, what successes did the European Commission have, in terms of drug policy during the last decade?

CE: First of all we have to be clear that as I said, the EU has no specific hard powers on drug policy. It has made very good use of all the soft power it has. This takes the form of a European Drug Strategy, EU Drug Action Plans, and so on. The EC plays an active role in the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna every year, keeping the European member states as well organized and as informed as possible. This helps to achieve a coherent European position. The EC, through the CND, was instrumental in introducing evidence-based policies in the field. There is still a lot to do, but without the EU this would not have happened.

The EU Drug strategy and action plan may look like exercises in compromising bureaucracy, but the interesting thing about them is that they start to have a life of their own once they have been adopted. And you find countries that are not member states yet, like Croatia, adopting the principles and approaches set out in the EU strategy, as part of the Acquis Communautaire (all the EU laws).

DR: Are you referring to the new moves towards liberalisation in Croatia? Did the impetus come from the EU guidelines?

CE: The point is that decriminalizing possession is not in the EU strategy, but if you take the EU strategy as a whole, the clear conclusion is that all-out prohibition is ineffective, expensive and not supported by any evidence base. Another positive process introduced by the strategy, is that certain countries in Europe don't have an option within their judicial system, when someone is arrested for a drug related offense, to offer the option of a non-custodial sentence. But because we are putting that into the new strategy, countries which would like to introduce this but have political problems with that at home are now able to say, “Look, this is what the EU strategy points at”.

DR: Do you think the EU could do more on the current legal basis it has?

CE: No.

DR: How about in third countries?

CE: There is supposed to be conditionality, for instance in agreements with third countries, whereby such countries can only receive financial assistance when they respect basic values. In practice this does not always happen at all.

DR: Can you give us  examples of good cooperation with countries in the field of drug policy?

CE: We try to coordinate our drug policies internationally, globally with the US, Russia, and Latin America, as far as we can.

DR: What does this mean for example with the US?

CE: With the US, we tend to disagree on a lot of things - we've had the US against us in Vienna for quite a few years. The US is allergic to a lot of the European evidence-based approach  and appears to be far more interested in supply reduction then in harm reduction. And it's not very fussy about human rights.

DR: What are your views on the subject of criminalising users and in general on prohibition-based drug policies?

CE: Criminalising users is illogical, because it doesn’t usually  have much effect on the pattern of use of the person concerned. It is also incompatible with the basic human civil rights we stand for in Europe. It’s a nonsensical, expensive and counterproductive measure.

DR: On the subject of human rights: How come the EU - among the strongest promoters of basic rights - allows its own citizens to be subjected to such inhuman treatment in Europe? Isn’t this contradictory in legal terms?

CE: Its not contradictory in legal terms: We are all signatories of the UN convention and the UN conventions make the use of substances other then medical use illegal. This is why it is so important to do something about the UN conventions.

DR: The last UN convention review in 2011 only brought hope but did not deliver change. Do we have to wait another eight years to have for our next chance to change global drug policies?

CE: I don’t know, because things are shifting in Latin America, and I think any change that might happen in the UN, most likely will originate from there.

DR: How do you see the role of the Global Commission on Drugs, backed by current and former heads of states?

CE: They are a new hope, because these people are not all formal presidents - some of them are acting politicians, and there are also people from countries which dominate the international drug policy.

DR: Why, in your view, does the European Parliament, as the democratic legitimacy of the EU, not provoke more fact-based debate?

CE: The problem with drugs on a political level, is that if you take a sort of typical cross section of the EP you will always find people in there who have a rational approach, but you will also find people who follow a hard-line emotional, moralistic drug approach. Another answer is that drug issue is still what the Americans call a third rail issue (the third (middle) rail on the New York subway is where the electricity goes through): Touch it, and you're dead. It is one of the topics, where as a politician it is very difficult to take up the issue and make an advantage of it in your political career. Politicians still think it's political suicide.

DR: Do you tend to agree with new Dutch government, who at the last minute backed down from introducing the weed pass, a members' system for coffee shops in the Netherlands?

CE: Tolerance of cannabis has become a fact of life in Dutch society over the last 35 years. But the way they tend to deal with the issue - leavin it up to lower political levels - is typical in Europe. The tendency from a legal point of view, is for all drug issues to be moved further down the line away from central authorities, government and legislators, on the basis that it is preferable for such decisions to be taken at a local community level. But what you get at the end is dangerous. If you take for example possession of cannabis, it is illegal just about everywhere in Europe. But at the same time, you will also find that there will be interpretative or executive decrees saying, essentially, that it's ok, so long as public order isn't threatened. Basically, the legislators are leaving the key decisions - not even to the courts, but to the policeman on the street. That is not in my view a good development for open societies.

DR: How about the other tendencies in Europe, with the Czech Republic and Denmark heading towards decriminalisation / legalization? Do you think the EU in general is moving towards legalisation, or do you think this is just an illusion, and Europe will go forward on the prohibition path?

CE: The reality is that legislation is running behind society - which is perhaps not a bad idea, as legislation should reflect on what people in the society think the priorities should be. I think Europe is tending towards a more liberal approach, because the alternative is unrealistic, when use of cannabis, for instance, is a mainstream thing. 20 percent of the population is consuming it, or has done so. And another thing to consider, is that the prohibition approach is simply too expensive.

DR: Do you feel that the independence of EMCDDA national reports is guaranteed, in light of the recent Hungarian case, where the Hungarian expert report of the national focal point was censored by the ministry before being published in Lisbon? Are these national drug reports as independent as they claim or not in your view?

CE: On the whole, they are perfectly independent. Here again in the case of the Hungarian report it is a local issue. The system of reporting is based on the Reitox network of focal points which gather information and which receive a grant from the European Commission through the EMCDDA.

DR: Does this protect them from undue influence?

CE: They are usually not NGOs, but based in a ministry. It's always possible to influence these people. What is a good thing is that we know that the Hungarian focal point is under political pressure and that what it says is therefore not necessarily the whole picture. So, when we get the annual report of the EMCDDA, we're aware of that. Plus this is the first occurrence of such undue pressure that I'm aware of.

DR: Do you think that the legalisation of cannabis in Colorado and Washington states is the beginning of a shift, and if yes, could it ultimately affect the UN line on cannabis use?

CE: There is a lot of debate about the legality of local referendums, the degree to which the results are compatible with federal law, and whether the American government passes this up to the Supreme Court. At the same time, Europe is not having the same sort of War on Drugs. The percentage of the population in jail is very small compared to the US. The number of people who go to jail because of a conviction for drug possession offences is really small.

DR: Having said all that, some of the  arguments may sound hypocritical. Does this lead us forward?

CE: We have to work with the laws we have, and within the prevailing political competence. And the law we have is the Treaty of Lisbon, while laws on an EU level are very vague and tend to talk about supply reduction and police cooperation. The fact is that we have a civilised system which is coordinated at a European level. All that shows we are not doing too bad and maybe we should not hope for clearer legislation. Because if we get that, it may not be the legislation we want. The reason for this is that if there will be a more explicit regulation, it may include something that would make it more difficult to have the sort of gray area about fairly civilised policies we have in most European countries at the moment. You may find that a lot of people wake up and will try and get more hardline measure into an EU treaty. This is a risk: I’m not saying it's necessarily going to happen.

György Folk/Brussels