The new Security Union strategy would “fight” against drugs together with child abuse and arms trafficking. This is a bad approach.
The European Commission has published its new EU drug strategy (now called the Drugs Agenda), which is part of a wider Security Union strategy entitled “Delivering on a Security Union: initiatives to fight child sexual abuse, drugs and illegal firearms.” While I celebrated the previous Action Plan as the most progressive ever, I think this document has come as a disappointment for civil society organisations that have been advocating for a sensible, balanced approach in drug policies.
Here are 4 reasons why (this article is not a comprehensive review and it does not reflect the official position of the Civil Society Forum on Drugs or other organisations but only my personal views).
1. War on Drugs language & framework
Unlike in the US, European Union drug policy documents have largely avoided the militaristic language of the War on Drugs in the past. They have emphasised that drug policies should be multidisciplinary, balanced, and evidence-informed. But the current Drugs Agenda is placed in a militaristic framework where drugs are conceptualised as a public enemy to fight against, on a par with child abuse and arms trafficking.
I believe it is a very unfortunate framework that does not reflect the incredibly complex nature of the drug phenomena. It is not debatable that illicit drug trafficking is harmful for society – but unlike child abuse, drug use is not inherently, morally condemnable. There is a broad spectrum of drug use from medical and recreational use to abuse and dependence. The transition from recreational to more problematic use is not necessary and depends on several social and psychological factors. By placing drug use in a negative security framework, we undermine decades of efforts by civil society to de-stigmatise and decriminalise drug use, a position supported even by the recent joint position of the United Nations.
You can say that if you read the Agenda itself, you can find everything in it, a reference to a balanced approach, respect of human rights, even scaling up harm reduction. So what’s the problem? But even if the Drugs Agenda itself includes social and health interventions, they are subordinated to a predominantly law-and-order approach. This does not only have symbolic or rhetorical significance. If you put drug policies in a law enforcement framework, it is reflected in the allocation of the budget, in the priorities of the leadership, in the general attitudes to people who use drugs. What we see at the EU level is a deprioritisation and defunding of health and social policies and a growing support for tough-on-crime policies, with negative effects on the most vulnerable groups of society. Our policies on drugs should be guided first and foremost by human rights and public health, not law enforcement. History teaches us that the war on drugs is always a war on people.
2. Not reflecting some key evaluation findings – and the reality
The Commission contracted a consortium of research institutions to conduct an external evaluation of the previous Drugs Strategy (2013-20) and Action Plan on Drugs (2017-20). You would expect that in an evidenced-informed policy making process you would first publish and discuss the evaluation of the previous strategy – then you prepare the next one, taking into consideration the lessons learnt from the evaluation. But the evaluation report was published together with the new strategy and there was no time and space for discussing its findings. This is unfortunate, because the evaluation report has important findings, even if it has significant limitations and shortcomings. It clearly pointed out the huge discrepancies and gaps in the implementation of the previous strategic documents.
First, even though the aim of the drug strategy was to reduce the supply and demand of illicit drugs, we could not see a measurable reduction in supply or demand. This is no surprise to any professionals who have studied these phenomena for any length of time. Repressive policies proved to be historically ineffective in reducing the production and trafficking of drugs in a sustainable way. Demand and harm reduction policies are effective only in reducing the scale of drug-related problems. This proves that harm reduction would be a more sensible and feasible approach and framework to address these phenomena. Policy makers do not seem to learn the lesson: they keep their focus on “fighting drugs”, trying to eliminate the use of some substances with hundreds or thousands of years of history. Policy makers fail to consider alternatives to the punitive approach (e.g. decriminalising the use of drugs and/or regulating the market of at least some drugs).
Second, the report also emphasises that the implementation of demand and harm reduction interventions required by the strategy and action plan have been lagging behind supply reduction interventions. That is, EU institutions and member states invest disproportionally less resources on demand and harm reduction than on supply reduction. Quality drug prevention is missing from schools, or it is substituted with indoctrination programs with outdated methods. There is an underinvestment in the treatment and harm reduction system, with scaled down or closed services, and a lack of trained professionals. This situation is especially grave in the Eastern part of the Union, where treatment and harm reduction interventions are scarce and chronically underfunded, leading to disruptions in the access to life-saving services, and outbreaks of HIV and HCV epidemics. Shrinking space for civil society is reported from multiple countries, with vicious attacks against harm reduction. (We will soon report here on Drugreporter about the closure of the oldest and largest harm reduction service provider in Bulgaria.)
Although civil society was very outspoken at the hearings and consultations, the new Drugs Agenda does not reflect these desperate realities. In its foreword, it focuses on assessing trends of drug use and trafficking but does not mention the inadequate support for demand and harm reduction. The evaluations of previous strategies traditionally shy away from naming and shaming individual member states, or even referring to exact data when it comes to measurable indicators, such as needle and syringe provision. And the Drugs Agenda does not make any efforts to correct the disproportional allocation of public resources between supply and demand/harm reduction and to promote urgent and massive reinvestment into demand/harm reduction.
3. Lack of measurable indicators
A great achievement of the previous Action Plan was to make indicators more measurable. But indicators are useless without using them in the evaluation, without mechanisms ensuring the accountability of responsible parties and without the continuous use of these indicators in the next action plan. A good example is to request member states to provide at least 200 clean needles per injecting drug user. The evaluation report mentions that “the perceived effectiveness of the different types of harm reduction services based on their access has not been considered particularly high by some stakeholders, such as civil society organisations.” Well, this is an understatement. In our report we pointed out that in several Eastern European member states access to sterile needles dropped to almost zero. It is below 100 or even 50 needles per injecting drug users. As I mentioned above, there are documented cases of HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks directly linked to the shortages of sterile injecting equipment. The new Drugs Agenda breaks with the practice of previous strategies and does not include a detailed action plan with interventions, indicators and responsible parties. This is a step back.
4. Limited civil society involvement
The Civil Society Forum on Drugs (CSFD) is an expert group and the main advisory body of the Commission on drug policies. CSFD invested significant time and resources in the previous years to evaluate the implementation of this document. In its report, based on a survey, it highlighted the gaps in the implementation of the previous Action Plan. It did this in the hope that there would be a real evaluation and the findings would have real consequences and would be integrated into the next document. But it did not happen. There was an online public consultation where you could submit your ideas. But despite the CSFD’s repeated attempts to comment on the draft of the evaluation report and the draft of the new drug strategy, or at least access the documents themselves, its members could not see them until they were published. The documents were presented as fait accompli.
I believe that meaningful civil society involvement is not a box ticking exercise. A real partnership is interactive, it is a dialogue. Civil society recommendations should be reflected in the decision-making process and in the final decisions. The previous Action Plan was exemplary in this regard. Civil society could not only make a timely input at all levels of decision making, but its recommendations were highly valued and integrated into the final document. This is not the case now. There were formal mechanisms to involve CSOs, but this document does not reflect the civil society positions adequately, as presented in our reports and letters.
Now it is up to the European Council and the European Parliament to have a say about the proposed Drugs Agenda – and I encourage all like-minded MEPs to explore the situation and consult with civil society organisations on how to do it in a most effective way. There is a need for political leadership and a renewed cooperation between decision makers and civil society.