The experiences of a representative of the European NGO Council on Drug Policy while attending the conference called “The Way Forward” on a new European Union strategy on illicit drugs, which was held in the Hotel Conrad, Dublin, Ireland, on 10 and 11 May, 2004.
My presence at the Conference followed an invitation of the organisers (Irish government (current EU-presidency) together with the Dutch government, the next EU -presidency) to inform about the position of European NGO’s working on drugs issues. The result was that some governments re-acted on this presence as if I had come to open the box of Pandora…
The audience consisted of about 200 people: mostly civil servants from all the 25 EU Member States, some from candidate countries Rumania, Bulgaria and Turkey, some representatives of European Institutions (European Commission, Europol, European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction), some obsevers from third governments (Norway, United States) and two NGO representatives (TNI and ENCOD).
The conference was meant to draw the first global guidelines for the next EU Drug Strategy Plan (2005 – 2012) which has to be designed during Autumn of 2004 and finally approved in the springtime of 2005.
I was asked to participate in a plenary panel session on Monday morning, just after the opening speeches. This panel consisted of four people: one representative of the UK police, two Irish doctors and me. We all had about 6 minutes to speak during the entire panel session. I was the only panel member to propose a fundamental change of logic in drug policy, with which I referred to the need to start creating political ‘room for manoevre’ for policies that are not based on prohibition.
The panel discussion also contained the screening of a video film in which 8 people were interviewed. They were Tomas Zabranski (Czech expert), Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt (UK activist), Mike Trace (UK expert), Ian Oliver (UNDCP consultant), Jan van der Tas (NL activist), David Liddell (UK harm reduction), Danny Kushlick (UK activist) and Krzysztof Krajewski (Polish expert). The interviews all concluded with a call on the audience to work towards a review of existing policies.
After this the floor was opened to discussions and the first three governments to re-act (Belgium, Italy and Greece) immediately protested against my presence. The Belgian government even used the word “scandalised” to describe their feelings on my presentation and the content of the video, accusing the organisers to be extremely biased in their choice of speakers. They also felt scandalised by the fact that ENCOD had dared to use the EU symbol in our flyer.
This incident influenced the entire conference. In the corridor, a lot of discussion was going on concerning the fact that our ideas had been allowed to enter the conference room.
After lunch, in the workshops that followed the plenary session, it was clear that some governments (especially Sweden, Italy, France and even Germany) were quite outraged about the fact that the call for change in drug policies had been at the center of attention in the morning. This meant that in the workshops (Demand Reduction, Law Enforcement, Information & Evaluation and International Co-operation) several representatives acted with a high degree of Pavlov: every time the word harm reduction was mentioned, they would fly up and state that this could not be the objective of EU drug policy, which still had to be based on reduction of consumption etc.
Meanwhile, several representatives came to me and said that on a personal title, they agreed with lots of the things we were saying. Especially the representatives of the new EU Member States were very positive, saying that they did not agree with the Belgian representative. They said they knew all too well how ‘civil society’ is treated by authorities and that the future is ours.
Meanwhile the 100 copies of the statement disappeared quite quickly from the information table. I had quite positive talks with delegates of the Irish, Dutch, Slovenian, Czech, Finnish, Cypriote, Slovak, Bulgarian and Hungarian, European Commission and Council of Europe delegations and even a constructive conversation with someone from the Swedish Ministry of Justice, who also said that he found the drug debate too dogmatic…
THE FIGHT FOR MONEY
What resulted clearly from the conference is that most governments are aware that in the 1990s, there has been a shift in drug policies from repression to harm reduction. They are of course aware that this shift has not been enough to solve the problems, and that a second shift is needed from harm reduction to legal regulation. But in order to do this, they need to have the tools to question the current approach within the law enforcement apparatus. And that is a problem, as the law enforcement lobby is well established.
In the workshop there was a lot of talking about the need to investigate and evaluate health related initiatives: prevention, treatment, new health hazards concerning ATS (Amphetmanie Type Stimulants) and cannabis (French and Germany both highlighted the “increasing health problems of cannabis consumption), harm reduction initiatives and so on.
The conclusion of these talks was usually that the European Commission should invest more money, the EC then pointed at the EMCDDA, and the EMCDDA pointed again at the member states. Conclusion: we want research but others should pay for it.
This way, the participants escaped the real discussion: about the result of current policies on drug consumption (according to a Dutch researcher, there is virtually no impact at all from any kind of policies on drug consumption), about ways to use each other’s research results (for instance on heroin distribution in Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Spain) in order to save money in stead of investing more etc.
But also, there was virtually no talking at all about the need to evaluate law enforcement. Here the discussion went more in the direction of enlarging co-operation between European police forces, supporting Europol, and designing new action plans to “new threats” such as ATS production and trafficking. Again this would create the need to use more money (see above).
Again in personal conversations, one could feel however that even repressive governments (like Denmark and Sweden) do not have a real response to the argument that more law enforcement on drugs means more money to organised crime. They typically respond by saying that we do not have a proposal of how to do things in a post-prohibition system, and as long as we do not have answers to many questions on how such a system could function they will never take us serious…
THE LACK OF DIALOGUE
For someone from civil society, representing a large contingent of tax payers, it was quite astonishing to see that the participants at the event were not able to reach any kind of clear consensus on even the most minimal definitions on what should be considered as ideal outcomes of a new EU drug strategy. This was perhaps partly because the organisers had been a bit too ambitious in defining these objectives. Although it is remarkable to see that a formulation like “Improving the effectiveness and sustainability of drug prevention aimed at vulnerable young people and by increasing awareness about drug related risks through the dissemination of reliable information of high quality among young people in the age of 12 to 25” could already raise many discussion points.
Mainly, the lack of results can be explained by the reluctance of certain governments (especially Sweden, Italy, and interstingly enough, Belgium, France and germany) to enter in a real discussion. Their goal seemed mainly to sabotise the debate, to make sure no mention was made that would open the pandora box…
Of course this left a bitter aftertaste among all participants. In the closing remarks, Europol and EMCDDA representatives could make a final call for more money to do law enforcement and research. But the real question is if there will be room for further dialogue with civil society on the drug issue, as this dialogue seems to be the only way to close the box of panodre, that is: to ovbtain a real view on the harms of drug prohibition and start reforming the policies.
But this dialogue is going to come. Especially the presence of the new Member states is interesting in this aspect. Still they are reluctant to join the discussion (as someone said: “they have taken a seat in the bus but do not try to come closer to the steering wheel”) also because they are used to obey orders (first from Moscow, now from Brussels), but if they do, it is quite sure that they will come with many questions, as they are aware of the difficulties that prohibition is bringing.
Also some kind of dialogue took place with the United States government. Its representative, called David Murray, already had been annoyed by the lack of receptiveness among participants for his ideas about how the EU should copy the succesfull approach of the US in drug law enforcement. But when the ENCOD-representative challenged the success of the US drug war and suggested that he was only defending it because that was his job, Mr. Murray responded literally: “That is an insult, you son of a bitch”.
My conclusion of this conference is that the debate on drug policies is arriving to the EU forum. Prohibitionist governments are slowly becoming nervous at the direction the process is taking, and will do everything to block it. But they are also aware that they do not have any responses to some of our arguments, and some individual people among government apparatus are increasingly aware that they need to go into debate with us in order to find the true response.
It will now be very interesting to see how the reactions will be on the results of the evaluation of the current EU Action Plan (to be published in October 2004) and what the Dutch Presidency will do with those results in order to design the guidelines for the new strategy, which has to be concluded in December 2004. The first Action Plan 2005-2008 will then be adopted in the springtime of 2005.
ENCOD will surely follow this process and perhaps, if we get funding, organise an event in the autumn of 2004 to comment this EU strategic process with a broad range of NGO’s from all around Europe.