The EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson accused cocaine users of being responsible for the death of an 11 year old girl who was caught in a shooting by drug traffickers. But the real culprit is the current drug control system that maximises harm by sweeping cocaine under the rug.
The illegal cocaine trade is a growing problem in Europe. The police seizures and arrests reported by the media at the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam constitute only the tip of a huge iceberg. The market value of cocaine distributed in Europe is estimated to reach 10 billion EUR. More than 3.5 million people used cocaine in 2021. The supply of cocaine seems to be endless.
The production of cocaine reached record levels in recent years, thanks to the growing coca cultivation in the Andean region, in spite of enormous efforts from governments to curb it. In the past ten years, the US has spent more than 10 billion USD on eradicating coca production in Colombia alone. But what we see is an ever more resistant and resilient, ever more globalised cocaine production and trafficking network.
Police can seize less than 10 percent of the total cocaine imported from Latin-America: an affordable loss for traffickers, who often gain 1000 percent extra profits by selling the remaining 90 percent of the drug. It is not even a risk: it is a pre-calculated amortisation cost. Just like the cost of corrupting local port officials, dock workers, and police officers. Trafficking organisations penetrate all levels of the system: it is more expensive and risky to buy higher level officials but it also pays off well.
The increasing violence the media reports on is associated with the ruthless tactics of the violent criminal organisation from the Western Balkan region that now dominates the ports in Western Europe. Torture chambers, kidnapped journalists, and a child who was caught in the crossfire and died – these are truly shocking developments, never seen in Europe before.
There is a half-truth in what the EU Commissioner is saying about the real cause of the tremendous suffering associated with the illegal cocaine trade. This market is demand-driven: despite spending as much as possible on law enforcement, whilst there is a high demand for cocaine on the streets of European cities, violent trafficking organisations will flourish. But the conclusion she draws from this fact, that it is the cocaine user to blame, is false.
Cocaine distribution, just like trafficking, has evolved to be a highly efficient network that utilises technological innovations and digital communication tools and channels. According to the Global Drug Survey, for many European young people it is now easier and faster to order cocaine than pizza. According to the EMCDDA, cocaine is more affordable and is of higher purity than ever before, even in Eastern and Northern European countries where cocaine use was traditionally lower.
And it is more than just the price and purity. Let’s face it: cocaine is a perfect match for urban life in a consumer society. Because the whole consumer society works on the same principle as cocaine: it constantly bombs us with triggers that generate a short-term dopamine splash in our brains. Excitedness, alertness, and euphoria. Cocaine is a fast, effective stimulant, with short-lasting effects that make it the drug of choice for many urban people whose lives are full of often conflicting social expectations and pressures.
The way our brains are hooked on ads, TV-shows, social media, or junk food is very similar to how we can get hooked on cocaine. And we know for a fact that the programmers who created Facebook intentionally built a dopamine-based dependence generating system that drives people to spend as much time and attention on it as possible.
I don’t claim that cocaine use is no more risky than social media: of course it is. But it is important to understand that the mechanism is the same. And the vast majority of people who use cocaine do not become “junkies” – just like most people who use social media don’t ruin their lives by scrolling. Those who become dependent share characteristics other than just using cocaine: childhood trauma, history of mental health issues in the family, maladaptive behaviour patterns, lack of meaningful and loving human connections.
When the EU Commissioner says that “recreational drug users in Europe who don’t consider themselves addicts are partly responsible for drug-related crimes”, it is like blaming social media users – and social media use itself – for the negative impact of social media platforms on democracies or hate speech. We know that the real problem is not with social media but with the lack of regulation of social media; the problem is the way it is commercialised and politicised without protecting the rights and well-being of its users.
Similarly, the real problem with cocaine is not its use per se – but its regulation, or rather the lack of any regulation that might protect public health and respect human rights. It is the system that is to blame, the system that generates a high risk environment on both ends, for coca farmers in Latin America and cocaine users in Europe. Not to mention innocent bystanders caught by the violence generated by the dynamics of the illegal market. Like the girl who was shot in Antwerp, who was the victim of a system that produces harm instead of reducing it. The system that sweeps the natural desire of people to use mind altering substances under the carpet, pursuing a moralising, ideological agenda of a “drug-free world”.
Instead of stigmatising and blaming cocaine users, European leaders must engage in some soul-searching and self-reflection as to how their drug policies betrayed the very people they claim to serve. The solution is not the “full liberalisation” of cocaine, a commercialised free-market would be equally damaging to public health. But beyond the black-and-white thinking we can explore a whole universe of policy options that may be highly effective but are not implemented because of the rigid prohibitionist mindset. It is time for social experimentation to test alternatives to current drug control systems, not only with cannabis, but with other substances as well. Each drug is different, we cannot apply the same model to the regulation of cocaine that might work for cannabis.
First of all, the EU should follow the lead of the agencies of the United Nations that adopted a joint position on the full decriminalisation of drug use. Because we may not know how the future regulation of cocaine will look exactly – but what we know with absolute certainty is that the criminalisation and stigmatisation of drug users cost lives.
We signed a statement from the European Network of People who Use Drugs, entitled ‘Time for a new European approach on drug policy say people who use drugs’ – you can read it hear!