Brussels – 20 June 2017
An expert panel was held in the European Parliament organized by Michał Boni MEP, Maltese Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the Polish Drug Policy Network on “Public safety and public health – municipal drug policies in the Member States”. Representatives of groups working “in the trenches” were invited to listen to panels and share their thoughts and questions.
The event was a continuation of the Urban Drug Policies Conference on the minimum quality standards in drug demand reduction for urban drug policies held in Warsaw in February 2016.
In his opening address Michał Boni highlighted that “cooperation is a key tool in countering drug addictions.” He also shared his personal opinion that there needs to be a way to fast track the time taken to ban substances. Though it has been proven over the years that drug issues are not something that cannot be banned out of existence. This approach simply pushes drugs into a dangerous unregulated criminal market or pushes producers to change formulas that are not illegal (yet). For example in the UK where the prohibition on cannabis has paved the way for a market in dangerous artificial cannabis substitutes such as “Spice”. Causing deaths and serious public health issues.
The first panel represented the “voice of the civil society”. Agnieszka Sieniawska, chairwoman of the Polish Drug Policy Network introduced the Warsaw Declaration which is a series of ten points that resulted from the Urban Drug Policy Conference.
Marcus Keane, core group member of Civil Society Forum on Drugs discussed the value of civil society contribution to policy making as the civil society actors are embedded in the community they represent.
Nana W. Gotfredsen, Executive Director of the Danish Street Lawyers said that she started working as a street lawyer in the 90s in the Copenhagen red light district after “too many politicians knowing too little” lead to a “disastrous decade of drug policies”. She highlighted how addicts human rights were abused under the guise of the “war on drugs” and discussed the frustrations of having evidence on our side but nothing happening at a policy level.
Closing the civil panel Anna Dovbakh, Acting Executive of Eurasian Harm Reduction Network, discussed the need for alternatives to punishment which she described as “spending money for nothing”. Giving people huge fines that will never be paid is a pointless and mean exercise that does nothing to help drug users’ situation.
The second panel was made up of three policy makers.
Prof Richard Muscat, Chair of the Horizontal Drugs Group, presidency of the Council of the European Union, said “do the programmes with qualified people that actually work”. Referring to programmes that work – not the people. He mentioned how people talk about harm reduction and then spend grant money on printing thousands of leaflets and questioned how much of an impact such an approach has.
Ute Stiegel, Acting Head of the Organized Crime and Drug Policy Unit of the European Commission, said in her comments that “drugs have not diminished and they are still causing harm to society”. She talked the delegates through a new EU Action Plan on Drugs for the period 2017-2020.
Finally, closing the policy maker panel, Danilo Ballotta, Coordinator for Institutional Affairs at European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), said “There is a much greater need for development at a city level.” He asked civil society to propose how drug policy can work at a municipal level.
In the Q and A session there were two questions from the delegates. Sébastien Alexandre, Director of Fedito BXL, asked whether we were heading into an opioid epidemic on the scale of that in the US. The panel responded that they thought not as there are different social factors at play in Europe – such as we don’t have (and are not able to have) a huge marketing push for opioid prescription drugs as they do in the US.
I (Bill Griffin) highlighted the plight of Cannabis Social Club organisers and members in Europe and how recent crackdowns in Belgium have landed many otherwise law abiding citizens in jail. Elsewhere in Europe CSCs are facing disruption and legal challenges from the authorities. The result is that members are being forced into a dangerous criminal market. I asked how, moving forward, can member states justify such actions?
Marcus Keane said that the heavy handed response is up to member states and not an issue that civil society can tackle.
Ute Stiegel urged member states to take a more evidence based approach to drug policies and pointed me to a recent report from EMCDDA that rounds up cannabis policies from all EU member states.
EMCDDA’s Danilo Ballotta ended the responses to my question by saying “I sympathise with our friends at Encod’s cause. However, if you defy legislation you will be arrested. When you break the law the policeman will do his job. So what you need to do is change the laws at a local level.” It’s great advice but had Encod and Cannabis Social Clubs not pushed the envelop with their civil disobedience the positive benefits of cannabis clubs would not be known and would have remained just a concept.
It was refreshing to see that the forum is opened to representatives of civil society, however, the declarations and action plans have already been published, it’s difficult to see how the event can alter these and really seemed like a formality.
The European Commission’s action plan for 2017-2020 highlights how law enforcement is still the priority with a continuation of bans and disruption of distribution channels. One glimmer of hope can be found under the “International Cooperation” point “Greater focus should be placed on combating illegal drug crop cultivation and on enhancing alternative development.” Does this open the door for support of alternative developments in distribution networks such as Cannabis Social Clubs at a European Commission level? I think so and after seeing policy makers reaction to the discussion on Cannabis Social Clubs it seems we have top down support at a European policy maker level. Now it’s up to law abiding members of the general public to put pressure on their local authorities for a bottom up approach.
by Bill Griffen firstname.lastname@example.org