The EU was until recently deeply divided when it came to the issue of dealing with illicit drugs. At the same time, the European Union's soft power approach - mainly sharing information - in the field brought inevitable advantages, helping to move away from punishing users, to viewing them as patients.
The prohibitionist tone still dominates the debate over preparation of the EU’s next drug strategy, but harm reduction is unquestionably gaining ground. The main challenge ahead is the fact that acknowledging only the health aspects doesn't tackle the black market part of the problem.
It is a widely known fact that politicians hate to deal with drug policy issues, which are recognized in most societies as a low-priority, costly and divisive question. So, when it comes to dealing with drug policies, neither the EU nor national politicians are keen to make any major moves.
As Danilo Ballotta, senior policy advisor at EMCDDA has expressed it, since the EU's drug monitoring agency was set up, political rhetoric has moved on from stigmatizing drug users as junkies, to referring to them as people living with addiction. Speaking at the Brussels conference debating the EU’s next drug strategy, Ballotta said, “The mere fact of including, in a questionnaire distributed among member states, a question about whether the national prisons have needle exchange programs up and running, can have the effect of changing regulations”.
Brussels have thrown the soft policy ball in the play and set up its EU expert advisory agency on drugs, the EMCDDA, in Lisbon about a decade and a half ago. And despite neither the agency nor the EU having any decisive power over drug laws within the 27 member states, a big advantage arose from the creation of the EMCDDA - namely, information and knowledge sharing. The mere fact that social services for drug users within the European countries are being regularly monitored, has the effect of gradually altering the policy balance, from a system deficient in healthcare, and centred on people living with addictions, to science-based approaches centred on harm-reduction. This is true even for Sweden - a country famous for having a long history of harsh prohibitionist approaches.
This may sound all well and good, but if we think in terms of raw numbers, we can see that there are 1.4 million EU citizens living with problematic drug use (0.4 % of the population) while 1.1 million are seeking treatment. Of the latter, 710,000 are involved in substitution therapy - essentially half the real underlying demand for opiate substitute programs. The need for harm reduction is further demonstrated by the continuously falling HIV epidemic and stable overdose statistics.
Thus far, the European Commission has only gone as far as to talk about supply and demand reduction, alongside the social and health aspects – as something for its next drug strategy. Despite the rapidly changing global tone regards cannabis use, the EU’s next drug strategy does not mention decriminalization of marijuana, nor does it call for fact-based debate in the field.
80.5 million EU citizens have tried cannabis, and 3 million consume it on a daily basis. Just within the last one and a half years, 1.5 million young people took ecstasy, and about the same number consumed other amphetamines. 6.4 percent of the EU population have snorted cocaine at least once, and around 50 million syringes are distributed through exchange programs within the EU. And yet European politicians still deny the fact that something should be done about the black market in drugs.
Michael Roudaut, from the European Commission's Home Affairs Directorate, stated in the debate that the illicit drug market is a business worth 70 billion euros annually, while most European money laundering cases are also drug-related. Roudaut added that there are an estimated 100,000 street dealers in France alone, with an average dealer earning around 6,400 euros a month. Are we really willing to just give up on trying to regulate and tax the illicit drug market? Do we really believe it's preferable to leave it all to the black economy, fuelling global insecurity and terrorism? These could sound like radical questions, far from mainstream European political realities; but it seems to me that there is a far more pragmatic approach which should be explored - an approach which rightfully can not and should not divide Europe as much as the question of legalization does today.
The core issue is one of respect for fundamental human rights. A growing number of supporters of decriminalization now base their argument on human rights principles. How come that the EU, a keen and long-time defender of human rights, still allows its own member states citizens to discriminate on the basis of which substance people consume? It is shameful that in the 21th century, the strongest promoter of human rights still allows people to be put behind bars, purely because they prefer to use a substance other than alcohol and nicotine. What, you might ask, about our right to the best healthcare available, or our right to choose how we spend our free time? How come an enlightened society forces its citizens to prefer one psychoactive substance over others?
Those experienced with EU politics know very well that these questions should be addressed mainly by the governments of member states, as it is they who decide in the Council at the end of any legislative procedure.
The European Commission should not be picking and choosing between issues on the basis of their popularity; it is, by definition, the “guardian of the treaty” and should act accordingly. The same is true for the European Parliament: MEPs, as the representatives of Europe’s democratic legitimacy, have a duty to fight to make Europe an inclusive society, while they argue around the clock.
The European Union has to live up to the expectations of its citizens. The Council of Ministers, standing shoulder to shoulder with the European Parliament and the European Commission, must work to ensure the provision of fair treatment, and defend the rights of the tens of millions of overwhelmingly non-problematic recreational drug users who are useful and productive members of our 500-million-strong community.