America educates Europe on drug policy

January 29, 2008

The U.S. government attempts to sell its failed drug policy in Europe.


The Office of Narcotic Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) - an executive office of the White House – and the U.S. Department of State organized a „demand reduction conference” on the same dates as the Beyond 2008 regional consultation meeting (read our article), from 23 January to 24 January in Budapest. This created some suspicions among European NGOs that the U.S. government wants to interfere with the UNGASS assessment process. When I asked the organizers to clarify their position, they denied that they had any intention to do so. However, it is clear that this „demand reduction conference” aimed to promote the U.S. approach in drug policy for Central-Eastern European decision makers. Most of the participants were government officials from the CEE region (Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Poland) and a couple of NGO representatives from Hungary (probably they were invited because their participation had no budgetary implications). The event was quite fancy even with governmental standards: participants were accommodated in the most expensive hotel (Kempinsky) and the conference reception took place in the most expensive restaurant (Gundel) of Budapest. The conference venue was the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), a Budapest-based school training law enforcement officials from the region (as Ethan Nadelmann, a former professor of Princton University points out in his latest book, Policing the Globe, the U.S. lays a great emphasis on extrapolating its law enforcement systems and mechanisms all around the world). The agenda highlighted issues like random drug testing in workplaces and schools, drug free communities, the drug court system and „the latest research on drug abuse”. Key speakers of the conference were high-ranking U.S. government officials like Bertha K. Madras, Deputy Director of the ONDCP, Roger Pisani, Creative and Research Director of „The Partnership for a Drug-Free America” and Wilson M. Compton, a leading epidemiologist of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The only European speaker of the conference was Neil McKegany, a Glasgow-based scientist who is known for his skepticism toward harm reduction policies in the UK.


The fact that there was no speaker who could represent European approaches to drug policy (like harm reduction in theory and practice) created a one-sided, warped communication flow that was based on the conception that the U.S. government has the key to solve drug problems while European governments and civil society went astray. Even if the participants had a possibility to ask questions after the presentations, this event did not create an adequate space for real dialoge and exchange of experiences. No surprise that most European participants whom I talked to expressed skepticism about the way the conference proceeded. If you look at the impacts of the „war on drugs” approach of the United States in the last couple of decades, you can see inhumane, agressively enforced criminal laws resulting a growing prison population, an increasing or stagnating prevalence of problem drug use among young generations, escalating gang-violance on the streets, corruption and racial profiling in the everyday work of police, rapidly increasing transmission of blood born diseases among injecting drug users and an easy access to illicit drugs among every populations (Drug War Facts). It is not easy to sell this drug policy as a succesful model to tackle the drug problems, is it? Especially not in the European Union, where the key indicators of drug problems (like prevalence rates among young people, prevalence of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis among IDUs, the size of prison population and drug related crime) are not nearly as catastrophic as in the U.S. It is quite absurd that the U.S. government aims to promote its failed attempts to reduce drug use as effective demand reduction tools, especially because of the thousands of unintented consequences they caused. For example the random drug testing of students proved to be unsuccesful according to the largest research ever conducted on this subject by the Michigan University, based on collected data from 76,000 students over a three year period in 722 schools (you can read a detailed criticism of student drug testing here).


Christina Steffner, the principal of the Hunterdon Central Regional High School, New Jersey, who presented random school drug testing at the conference did not even mentioned this research. When she was asked about the negative consequences of school drug testing, she said there are only positive impacts. She refered to the SATURN (Student-Athlete Testing Using Random Notification) study – while the lead author of this study, Linn Goldberg, MD quoted in the New York Times, “The big thing that people say is you got to give kids a reason not to use drugs, and drug testing is a reason. That is not what we found…we didn’t find any evidence that testing is a deterrent”. When participants raised concerns if it is an effective way to prevent drug abuse among students if we exlude the most vulnerable young people from extracurricular activites – she answered that actually student drug testing increased the participation in these activities among her high school students. However, the Hunterdon study was conducted by the same people who implemented student drug testing in the same school, it was not published in a peer-revied journal and it provides little information on methodology. What real scientific evidence shows is that extracurricular activities can protect youngsters from the harmful consequences of drug abuse. No surprise that many professional American organizations, like the American Association of Pedeatrics is against student drug testing. Most of the presentations of the conference can be criticized with solely using American research evidence – an astonishing proof that the official drug policy of the U.S. government secluded itself from reality. Even the drug court system – the criminal justice referal of drug offenders to treatment services – seems only a vague attempt to reduce the harms created by the war on drugs approach (the massive incarceration of drug users).


I believe that the most effective demand reduction policy ever created and implemented was that of Switzerland in the late 90s, which re-focused drug policy efforts and tackled drug problems as a public health and social problem rather than a criminal issue. The Swiss government created controlled facilities to inject drugs in order to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, introduced and scaled up methadone and heroin prescription programs for the most problematic group of drug users (opiate addicts), assisted them to find housing and jobs and motivated them to proceed to rehabilitation. Last June Swiss researchers published an article in one of the most prestigous British medical journal, The Lancet, which reported there was an 80 percent decrease in the incidence of heroin use in the last 13 years - in a period when heroin users were not sent to jail en mass like in the U.S., but were provided with free, government controlled heroin! It is also an unconvenient truth for ONDCP officials that a larger proportion of teenagers use marijuana in the U.S., where pot is demonized and a pot smoker is arrested in every 40 seconds, than in the Netherlands, where adults can walk into a coffee shop and buy pot without fear of arrest. If the title of the conference – “What works in reducing drug use” – would have been meant seriously by the organizers, they had to contemplate on these facts and learn from Europe how to build up an effective drug policy framework. What is more, they do not even need to invite Europeans to learn about best practices in the field of drug policy: there are many professional organizations in the U.S. promoting science-based alternatives to the anti-drug crusade, among others the Drug Policy Alliance, the Commonsense for Drug Policy, the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the Harm Reduction Coalition or the American Civil Liberties Union. The question is why the U.S. government do not listen to its own researchers and civil society and why does it feel the need to advertize its failed drug policy in Europe?


Peter Sarosi