Thursday, 29 December 2011

"Towards a stronger European response to drugs” - Reflections on the latest European Commission Communication to the European Parliament and the Council “

The title doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, and I advise all non-specialists in drug policy to wait for the movie. For the brave however, this is important in the wider context of developing civilised and effective drug policy, and if you want to check this out, the text I’m commenting can be found by Googling Com (2011)689 final or by clicking on:

First of all, it should be understood that a Commission Communication is a statement of intent as to the sort of action or legislative proposals the EU Commission will put forward in the near-ish future. It has no legal value and does not have to be approved by the Council or European Parliament. It does however give an idea as to the political thinking that goes on inside the Commission on a particular subject. Wise Commissioners also use it as a sounding board to test the temperature in the other Institutions and in the Member States.

So what does the latest Communication on drugs tell us, beyond the rather bullish rhetoric that is now apparently in vogue in Brussels?

1. The youth and health arguments.

Part 1 gives an almost tabloid picture of alarm: “Illicit drugs are a major threat to health and safety…”, “Europe’s drug problem is evolving rapidly”. Drugs, it says, particularly affect young people and are “one of the most important causes of avoidable deaths among young people”. The trouble is  that this is not borne out by other EU sources.

Thus, the greatest killers in our society are heart disease and accidents. If heart disease tends to spare the young, road accidents do not. The ETSC (European Transport Safety Council), in its press release of 29 November 2011, states that the proportion of people dying on the roads aged between 15 and 30 is 69 percent higher than the corresponding figure for people of all other age groups. In 2010 alone, around 10.000 young people died in road accidents in the EU.

Eurostat, in its “Causes of deaths statistics (September 2011)” gives bar graphs of 17 of the most significant causes of mortality across the EU per 100.000 inhabitants - from heart disease to drug dependence. Drug dependence is by far the least significant cause of death.

This is not to say that drug use and health concerns are not closely linked, and there is plenty of evidence that all drugs – licit and illicit - are bad for your health and that they affect adolescents in particular in specific ways, but youth mortality is a spurious motive for calling for a “stronger European response”. It is also questionable from an evidence base point of view. The same is true for the remark made in Part 5 of the Communication (which deals with new psychoactive substances) that “5 percent of young people interviewed (for a Eurobarometer poll) have used such substances”. Can we really take the result of a telephone straw poll as a reliable indication of drug use? If so, why bother to have a European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)?

Back in Part 1 of the Communication it is already clear that the new policy line is about “justice” (understood in terms of the application of the law rather than what might be right or wrong). Trafficking and organised crime is what this document is really about. This is actually not unreasonable, coming from a Directorate-General for Justice, but whatever happened to the “comprehensive and balanced approach” which the Commission spent years developing, together with the Member States? To be fair, demand and health-related aspects are mentioned in this Communication, if you read past four other chapters on supply reduction, but  there is little doubt that Mrs. Reding’s heart is not in the soft stuff and that she has no ambition (nor would Mr Barroso let her) to coordinate the agenda for and the thinking on an overall European Drug policy which would avoid the “unintended consequences” that are so stretching the credibility of public authorities across the world.

Let's drill down further in the next post, in which we’ll cover the trafficking and organised crime aspects and try to give some modest and constructive pointers on how to avoid the anticlimax of continued failure in EU cooperation in those areas.

Good luck, and a happy new year.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Passengers on the Titanic to be charged for deck chairs.

European leaders took a decision this morning that effectively puts an end to the European dream. Not that the EU will cease to exist, on the contrary; after decades of inching towards greater sovereignty sharing through a slow but democratic process, most Member States will now sign up to an intergovernmental Treaty outside the EU legal framework which at a stroke places national budgetary competence in the hands of people outside national governments and parliaments. It may be the realisation of a federalist dream, but this was never the outcome sought by any civilised, democratic European federalist. It's the sort of thing King George's American subjects went to war over with England.

The result will be that when governments break the draconian new budget rules on deficits - and there are many reasons for doing so from time to time other than profligacy - they will have their noses rubbed into it by having to pay fines to Brussels. It has been tried before. It was called the Stability Pact. It was invoked twice, against France and Germany, who simply dismissed it. The EU Commission didn't have the guts to call them to account, which it had the powers to do.

I have been a European official for thirty years, I am an alumnus of the College of Europe, I believe a united Europe is the only way forward  in order for our continent and way of life to survive, and I say that this decision is madness. In years to come, every cut in public services, every tax rise, will be blamed on "Europe". A generation will grow up that will learn to loathe that word and dispise the Brussels system, which is in fact a semi-government with one of the best administrations in the world, but led by one of the worst sets of mediocre politicians we have seen since the 1930s and who are clearly in over their heads. The politics of the liberal capitalist counting house await the peoples of Europe.

In reality, the Greek problem has nothing to do with it, but it is has now become the justification to yank the entire European polity to the right. What was a European-minded Germany is creating a German Europe. France without the UK is too weak to stand up to this and has chosen the winning side for now. The irony is that what is making this possible is the pressure of the markets. The same markets that Germany considers itself to be immune to. Atavistic German phobia about inflation is stronger than economic analysis.

The Germans are spectacularly missing the point: this is a banking crisis, not a fiscal or budget crisis. Moderate inflation - something we have lived with on and off for decades - is essential for stimulating growth at the moment. A more active role on the part of the European Central Bank can mean the difference between private bankruptcy or survival for millions of Europeans in the years to come. This new German Europe will turn people not just against the whole idea of Europe but will awaken ancestral fears. Germany may now have postponed its return into the mainstream of popular European belief that she is a safe neighbour  for another couple of generations. It may also have set off yet another resurgence of nationalistic feelings in this part of the world.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Oh What A Lovely War

"Fortunate are those who give their lives in a just war", so wrote the French poet Charles Péguy before he died at the battle of the Marne in 1914. I wonder if a mayor of a Mexican town whose head is dumped at his office door  can be said to have died in a just war. Mexico may be an extreme case - and its problems are caused by many things beside drugs - but it seems to confirm the notion that first banning drugs and then fighting the criminals who swarm to pick up the money is a dead end in more ways than one.

It reminds me of another memorable statement from Europe's troubled past: "Long live death", Spanish Falangist general José Millan Astray called out at the University of Salamanca, on 12 October 1936. He followed it up with the wish "May intelligence die". He was addressing an academic assembly, and clearly had the very process of scientific analysis itself in mind.

Today we do things differently (we believe), yet people keep dying in "just wars" (Afghanistan, the War on Drugs, society's war against organised crime, etc). At a recent military funeral in Paris of the latest batch of French casualties from Afghanistan, President Sarkosy said pointedly "your sacrifice has not been in vain". Reasonable consolation from a Head of State, but chillingly unconvincing.

General Astray's wish for the death of intelligence was less crazy than it sounds. Politicians have always been more comfortable with what "feels" right  than what is right. The war on drugs, or even the global drug control system, is an essentially emotional reaction to the almost Freudian squeamishness of Western societies to accept habits that alter your state of mind. In Western tradition this has only ever been allowed on any scale when it was properly monitored by the church and served a higher purpose. It is no surprise then that christian missionaries played a major part in the 1909 Shanghai Conference (chaired by the American bishop to the Philippines), which is widely seen as the start of the global control system.

General Astray's Freudian simplicity about doing away with intelligence has long dominated drug policy world-wide. The European Commission doesn't seem to be immune either. Its latest "Communication" (Towards a stronger European response to drugs - promises to do things that society clearly needs, like fighting drugs crime and coming to grips with the growth of legal highs on the internet. But why does the response have to be "stronger"? And why does it have to take the form of repressive control when we are drowning in evidence (intelligence) that it hasn't worked for decades? Should it not concentrate on a "more effective" or even "more intelligent" response?

An example: anybody can buy the legal high "Energy 2" over the internet for a few Euros/Dollars. It will be delivered by the postman. It was recently analysed by a forensic lab in Belgium. They found that the batch they had ordered contained caffeine and nothing else, about the equivalent of five cups of coffee per tablet. The envelope it came in said three tablets in one go was a safe dose. That's 15 cups of coffee! Now that's definitely not good for you, so maybe someone should do something. But if the internet can host snuff movies, child pornography, and lessons in bomb making, drafting EU legislation on caffeine, which is just one of a thousand substances used in legal highs, is clearly not going to make a great difference , except possibly to coffee drinkers. Doing something about internet trading might be more effective.

The first thing to be done then is to save the intelligent approach on drugs that the EU has been following for the last 15 years, and to tone down the present calls for repression and control of what is a social habit indulged in by some 100 million Europeans, mostly without problems. (Most of the problems are caused by drug criminals and a small percentage of problem users). The second thing is to follow the evidence-based approach that the EU has done much to encourage in recent years, and to commission an independent study of the true  impact of prohibition and enforcement on consumption and on the illicit drugs trade in Europe. This has never been done in any meaningful sense because countries won't (and often can't) provide the figures of what it is all costing. Such a study would nevertheless clearly have to include an analysis of the cost of implementing current policies, and could be a follow-up to the Reuter-Trautmann report on the global control system made for the EU Commission in 2008.

In the mean time, the internal squabbling of the EU Commission should be dealt with (there are now two Commissioners dealing with drug policy) and the calls of the Commission's Public Health and external affairs people to maintain the balanced approach on drugs should be heeded. It is that approach that has kept "intelligence" on drugs alive in Europe. It is the only way forward out of a dilemma that has more to do with the voice of our darkest past than the voice of reason.

Organisations like LEAP (Law Enforcement Against prohibition) and the Global Commission on Drug Policy have understood this. Politicians should listen to them.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Did history really start on 9/11?

The word in White House at the time was that it did, and it goes some way towards explaining why the lessons of history were so spectacularly ignored in the years that followed.

The point is made in a thoughtful book "Cultures of War: Pearl Harbour/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq" by John Dower of MIT. It throws an interesting light on the selective amnesia in the US regarding the way the intelligence services didn't see 9/11 coming any more than they did Pearl Harbour. The shock and awe that was subsequently unleashed on Japan and later on Afghanistan (and Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11) was designed to persuade the enemy with incomprehensible levels of violence that resistance was futile. But was it really necessary to nuke two Japanese cities? And did we actually have to give in to Stalin's pressure and wipe Dresden off the map, with its large population of refugee women and children? Dower calls it a revolution in moral consciousness at the time, i.e. the end justifies the means.

I believe that levels of violence used in war - in so far as they exceed the "civilised" needs of combat - reveal a lot about the fear and outrage felt by the side that is inflicting it. 9/11 was the first serious "bombing" of an American city. Until then, the Americans had done the bombing. The "American innocence outraged" was an opportunity too good to be missed by the born-again Bush administration: it launched a war against "evil".God was now on its side. The rest we know. The fact that it is all ending in tears is a depressing testimony to US foreign policy and the faith-based politics that drive it. Unfortunately this is neither the end nor the beginning.

The war on terror has militarised the national reflexes of the world's most powerful state to the point where its friends are feeling uncomfortable. A 'theology of national security' has a firm grip on the system of government. The Patriot Act has made Americans subject to interference in their private lives that would not be tolerated in most European countries. Where is this war going to stop? What is its objective? When will we know whether it has been won or lost? The answer is of course 'never'. Society has simply changed. Civil rights have been rolled back. And the line between political dissent and unpatriotic behaviour is getting blurred.

But let's get back to history. This is not the first time the US has declared a war on something that can only end in the triumph of good over evil and is therefore unlikely ever to be brought to a close. Richard Nixon is widely credited with starting the War on Drugs in 1971, legitimising military and foreign intervention in the fight against drugs. In actual fact, the US crusade - and this time the term is used in its specifically christian meaning - goes back to the end of the 19th century. It was then that America joined the European powers in the great colonial adventure. The difference was that superior American christian morality - superior also to that of the Europeans that is - had to be seen and felt to assist the US in fulfilling its Manifest Destiny in the Pacific. That was when domestic anti-opium laws were extended to the newly acquired Philippines. This made the Philippines possibly the first experiment in global drug control measures which were to ultimately result in the system we have today.

Then as now, Christian morality, the national interest, and a biblical faith in might being right makes drug issues as difficult to debate in the US as terrorism. In both cases the response has been catastrophic, for the US and for the other countries involved.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The times they are a changing?

Those countries that have open debates about their drug policies around the world are coming to similar conclusions: that repression has not led to the drug-free world we were hoping for, that it has in fact made things a lot worse. They are also finding that law enforcement can no longer afford to go after drug users and small retailers because budget cuts are affecting the police and the judiciary too. According to a recent report by the UK Drug Policy Commission, more than half the forces in the UK will scale down their "traditional" drug work and look to concentrating on the higher levels of the drug trade and on asset forfeiture (i.e. taking away the BMWs from drug dealers).

Similar developments are happening all over Europe. It is hard to imagine Greek policemen - many of whom are now on 800 Euro monthly salaries - from being either committed to or equipped for intercepting the flow of drugs that comes through from Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. Most of it is on its way to North Western Europe anyway.

Belgian Police (sitting in the middle of the West European hub for illicit drug distribution to the region) are struggling with internal political problems and an outdated training system. The Dutch Parliament has recently held an expert hearing which advised strongly against some of the present government's flirting with more authoritarian approaches.

Drug policy is not, it turns out, about "solving" the drugs problem, but about reducing the damage that drugs do to people and the crime that prohibition creates. It is about preserving our law-based societies based on the rights of the individual from the growing fashion of making intractable societal problems into "security" issues. The unexpected ally in this effort is the rate at which security budgets are going to suffer in the coming years. It will force governments to follow more effective and evidence-based policies as they will dig deeper into citizens' pockets to service the sovereign debts we now have.

As the indignati or idignados camp in Madrid, London, New York and elsewhere, politicians are also well advised not to go too far in reading the riot act to electorates which are beginning to call into question the relevance of the current political system to their individual lives.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Global Commission on Drugs, don't let this fade away (Posted in June, moved from my old blog).

As the dust settles on the "coming out" of the former world leaders who make up the Commission ( it is interesting to feel the pulse of some of the world's media in relation to the idea that the drugs war has not just been lost but has made things worse, as well as the proposal that a sensible debate on regulation of drugs like cannabis is the best way forward.

If the idea has been overwhelmingly welcomed by civil society and professionals in the drugs and drug policy field, it has predictably been rejected by most governments, like the US, Russia, and other nations that have essentialy military/ideological approaches to mass sociological problems like drugs.The UK and other governments had their rejection ready but there was good coverage in most of the media in Europe. 
Some of the official reactions are almost comical. Apart from the old favourite about "sending the wrong message" there ist the World Federation against Drugs. Have a look at their website. Its headlines are an emotional rant aimed at discrediting individuals ("Russian Drugs Tsar Viktor Ivanov accused Koffi Annan of lobbying on behalf of drug traffickers"). The Russian Federal anti drugs service is a notoriously corrupt and ineffectual body, while Russia itself has a huge drugs problem that it is failing to deal with. The site goes on to name the "legalisers" and "harm producers" behind the report, which looks like a Who'sWho for evidence-based policies; surely an unintended consequence. 

Mr Ivanov was also active at Deauville, where the G8 recently looked at this (Why the G8?). He stated that we should be aware that this is "a public relations campaign in favour of drugs linked to the huge revenues they generate". He also called for a Russo-European agency to eliminate drugs in ..... Afghanistan. The French government has a way of pretending to go along with this type of initiative because it gives them international visibility but it rarely leads to much (who knows what results the 2010 Hortefeux Pact against Drugs in West Africa produced?). François Hollande on the other hand, potential socialist candidate for the presidential elections, calls for a commission at European level to look at treatment and decriminalisation of cannabis. Let's see if he remembers if he wins. And let's hope that the European Commission is listening and will anticipate the need to support such an initiative and channel it away from ideologically induced platitudes in order to obtain EU consensus. 

Freek Polak of ENCOD gave a particularly clear and helpful interview on Dutch radio. That is now more important than it used to be as the Dutch are becoming wobbly on drug policy and are in denial about the reasons why home-grown organised crime has got into the home-grown cannabis trade, but that is another subject.. 

Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland - and member of the Global Commission - is on record as saying "I have high expectation of European action on this. Europe must put public health at the centre of the drugs problem." 

As the old joke goes in Brussels: maybe the EU should apply for membership of the Swiss Confederation. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Counting the cost of bad politics (published earlier on opiumwars blog)

The Netherlands have been a byword for tolerant and realistic drug policies for years. It took some courage to do that because it provokes some pretty rough criticism from its partners in Europe and around the world.
The Dutch system effectively suspends its own drug law (drugs remain technically illiegal) and tolerates both drug use and the sale of cannabis in a regulated way through the "coffeeshops". These are regulated, legal (and taxed). Their supply is not. When the system started decades ago the "back door" was supplied by green-fingered "hippy" types and other amateurs. Now that cannabis has become a mainstream consumer product in much of the world - although production remains illegale - organised crime has stepped in.
It is a good illustration of the point I made in my post of 4 April (Power sharing with the Mafia). There is no easy option for weak politicians: all-out prohibition doesn't work (anywhere in the world) nor does the half-hearted tolerance policy of the Dutch (and, incidentally, quite a few other European countries).
As demand for cannabis grew in Holland - boosted by drugs tourism from neighboring countries - the volume of the  cannabis trade overtook heroin and cocaine somewhere around 1995 and is still expanding. The police has responded by creating special teams, sentencing is now tougher, but the profits to be made are totally irrisistable and the business plan of a serious canabis producer includes prison as a calculated risk and lethal violence as an essential management technique. Take a look at the fundamentals: a 1000-plant cannabis plantation with grow lights and automatic irrigation yields up to five harvests a year worth 700.000 EURO. The electricity and water are free because they are illegally tapped from the public networks.
What does this lead to? An unprecedented growth in organised violent crime in a country that has a firmly non-violent tradition. Drive-by shootings, public assassinations in bars and people's homes. Although much of this is gang warfare, the degree of intimidation of private citizens who are "pursuaded" to make a room, garage or cellar available to the growers is such that they rarely go to the police to complain. One mayor of a Dutch town is in hiding under police protection. Dutch police claim they destroy 6000 plantations a year or 2,5 million plants (one plant produces app. 40 grams). And yet, cannabis production is not thought to have decreased significantly.The market however is becoming more violent every year.
The problem has now spread over the border into Belgium, which has a weaker police system than Holland and less experience with the drugs trade. Belgian police recently claimed that more tha, 90% of plantations discovered were linked to Dutch organised crime. A Belgian criminologist, Prof. Decorte, describes the (Dutch) police tactics as "hit and run" raids on plantations, but which do no significant harm to the organisations behind the trade itself. Going for the top criminals would take resources that are simply not available and are likely to remain so for years to come. Meanwhile, others are moving into the business. Turkish, Bulgarian and Moroccan networks are increasingly active, to say nothing of the Vietnamese, already dominating the Canadian market and expanding rapidly in the UK.
How long will it take for our feeble and election-hungry politicians to take their eyes off the economy and to recognise that the bells are tolling for traditional prohibition of drugs and for the UN Conventions on drugs, at least in their present form. If they persist in "fighting" rather than regulating and reducing the side effects, we should expect a gradual slide into a form of society in which organised crime plays a major part in mainstream politics and in ordinary people's lives. Try to explain that to your children.

No drug policy please, we're politicians.

In a recent book by John Dower called "Cultures of war" there are some useful pointers to what makes the war on drugs such a dead-end and self-defeating exercise.

What makes Iraq and Afghanistan different from the (successful) turnarounds of Japan and Germany after 1945 is the fact that the occupation and subsequent régime change had been prepared years in advance by people who understood the situation on the ground and believed in the power of the state to bring about that change. Many mistakes were made but it basically worked.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, as in the war on drugs, we see the sort of  thinking that is making the institutions (and  bank accounts) of the world sag under the weight of the fact-free polices of the Victorian poor house: you shall suffer for your own good (budget cuts if you're lucky, shock and awe if you're not, prison if you're caught in possession again), and the future is nobody's business for God shall provide. And while we wait for that we shall build prisons and apply the Patriot Act.

The war on drugs - in which I include the less spectacular excesses of European politicians and judiciaries - is like the great wars of the 20th century in that it pushes civilised nations into a frenzied suspension of values.  Generations that grew up after the war were never taught to question the slaughter of civilians on an industrial scale, at least not of German or Japanese vivilians. The last upsurge of independent thought that Western societies have known were the events of 1968. They died down and were smothered in the materialism of the market economy that eventually overcame all other ideologies.

And so it goes with drug policies. Independent, critical analysis is a rare thing either among politicians or the media, although both claim the contrary. The political ineptitude and bureaucratic sloth that increasingly surrounds us in Europe and the US is a formidable obstacle to the development of drug policies for tomorrow.

There are rays of hope though. The Global Commission on Drug Policies is one. It is made up of leading ex-politicians who still have credit, but not for ever. They have addressed their report to the UN earlier this year, calling for a change of direction. We are still waiting for a similar approach to be made to the EU.


The March of Folly Revisited

In 1981, the American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in The March of Folly:"Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other activity...Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and elightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?" 
The question is as relevant today as it was then, or during the gaffes of the civilisations that she described, from Troy to Vietnam.
One issue to which her question applies directly is the global narcotics control system. A construct which reflects mainly American prejudice about alien customs and fear of losing social control, and which was embedded into the UN system of drug conventions between 1961 and 1988. The Financial Times yesterday joined the growing chorus of serious media with a one-page spread on the situation in Latin America. Conditions in Central America are particularly dire, as drug trafficking to the US market that goes through the region has produced unprecedented and widespread violence (El Salvador is quoted as having 71 murders per 100,000, or nearly 12 times the level of the US, 35 times more than in Europe). The legalisation debate, the article claims, "is bogged down by legitimate fears about the risk of increased addiction rates". Why are these fears legitimate? In the 1950's, anti- communist paranoia was rife. It was used "legitimately" by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to create a toxic mix of fear and xenophobia  about an international drugs conspiracy to undermine the free world. The rest is history: by 1961 the world (i.e. the West) had painted itself into a legal corner by adopting the first UN convention on illicit drugs. By 1971 Richard Nixon had called for the War on Drugs, and today we have the world's fastest growing illegal commodities market ever.
So, what about those "legitimate" fears? Just how scared do we have to be of addiction? Not half as scared as we should be of violence and the growing bonds between the legal and black economies as billions in drug money are seeping into our daily lives. Does your town or city have no-go areas? Mine does, and the fact that drugs are illicit gives the local tough guys their "respect" and their currency.  Regulating drugs would not turn these people into honest citizens, but it would take a form of crime out of circulation that is so easy I'm almost tempted myself. It would also free up a lot of cash for prevention and treatment that is now being spent on rather unsuccessful law enforcement. Prof Kleinman from UCLA may claim that the former is "cost-effective but not very effective", at least it is not a ruinous and murderous joke like much of the law enforcement efforts over the last decades.
The fear is not "legitimate". It is understandable, which is entirely different. It is understandable because self-serving politicians have played on it for so long - assisted by sensational media - that the mere suggestion of doing this differently provokes outbursts of righteous anger, particularly from "people with children", who somehow have the moral high ground in this debate. What about children with parents in prison, usually poor, serving inhumanely long sentences for posession or small scale retail trafficking? What about children living in prison, as they do in some Latin American countries? What if your adolescent child gets a taste of tough drug laws, looses his place at school, his bright future suddenly cancelled? 
The fear can be addressed and the options for regulating the drugs market explained. However distatsteful the idea is to most of us, regulating drugs is being discussed by many serious people in civil society, universities, and unexpected places like the House of Lords. A lot of work has been done on it, the complexity and risks of the idea are fairly well known. What is lacking is a political class that does more than follow its most rabid electorates in stead of showing a statesman-like way out of the present mess.
Let me end with Barbara Tuchman again. To qualify as political folly, she wrote, the policy must have been recognised as counter-productive in its own time, and, secondly, an alternative policy must have been available. 
Good night and good luck.

Power sharing with the Mafia - Western democracies and drugs control

From a legal and political point of view there can be little doubt that the EU and some of its friends have been defecting by stealth from the UN drug conventions for years, thereby creating what is probably one of the most civilised models of drug control in the world.Europe gets away with this because it is one of the UN’s principal bankers. The approach is also symptomatic of the way in which the EU deals with big issues: it compromises until things get too hot, and the really big issue of the day is the economy, not drugs. Nor is drugs policy in any way prominent in the Lisbon Treaty. The EU’s attitude (shared by a number of other Western societies) also reflects the growing realisation that the UN Drug Conventions seemed like a good thing at the time, but that times have changed. At a more fundamental level there is also simply a clear if unspoken consensus that a full-blooded implementation of the Conventions in the EU is socially and politically unacceptable. This is the principal reason why European politicians and civil servants, both in their capitals and in Brussels, share a rare community of purpose on drug policies: “don’t rock the boat”.
 The fact that (most of)Europehas effectively demilitarized since the fall of communism is hardly a secret. To most European governments security has moved beyond the logic of keeping large armies. What is less clear though is whether Europe today has the capacity in terms of law enforcement to protect itself against global organised crime in general, and against the way in which organised crime feeds off inconsistent drug policies in particular. The question is relevant because drug consumption, particularly of cannabis, has become a mainstream phenomenon in Europe (lifetime prevalence estimated at around 75 million people) and has proven to be virtually immune to public policy efforts to control, let alone eradicate, it.

 The existence of this consumer market has created a political and legal no-man’s land: governments - which are bound by the UN Conventions and their own drug laws - will not and cannot supply drugs to consumers other than through medical treatment schemes. Those who don’t qualify for these schemes – the vast majority of users - will simply have to find the nearest criminal for their supply. In other words, governments have in effect outsourced a major element of social and economic control over society to the very people they claim they want to bring to justice.  

 For a European Union that preaches sound governance and the rule of law to the world  this must become a problem sooner or later. Moreover, the EU’s “balanced approach” (i.e. balanced between reducing the demand and supply of drugs) is aptly named in as much as it achieves neither. In stead, it provides treatment and various harm reduction interventions on the demand side but goes no further, while on the supply side it is hopelessly ineffective and outclassed by organised crime. Perhaps the latter is just as well, because if law enforcement were to be really effective and the supply of drugs were to run dry, who knows what the impact would be on the stability of our societies in terms of health and public order.
There is little danger of a resounding law enforcement success however. So far - political rhetoric notwithstanding - the EU and most of its Member States have failed to take the necessary steps to make adequate resources available to deal with organised crime on a scale that would seriously affect it. The EU has innumerable national law enforcement agencies, some of which do not even coordinate at national, let alone EU level. The agencies that have been set up at EU level, like Europol and Eurojust, are mired in political infighting and paralysing bureaucracy. All this makes Europeone of organised crime’s favorite destinations in the developed world. This is certainly the view held by senior prosecutors, like Italy’s Piero Grasso or Spain’s Jose Ramon Norena Salto, speaking at a security briefing to the European Parliament last January.
The start-up capital of organised crime often comes from drugs, which as a commodity is easy to handle and, as we know, yields spectacular profits. In some EU countries, corruption is already in the bloodstream of public administration and indeed government. The situation in candidate countries is worse. But let us not always point the finger at the usual suspects: it is highly unlikely that west European ports should have become major international distribution hubs for illicit drugs without at least some local assistance. Opaque local rules on banking and taxation do the rest.
 The degree of infiltration of the legal economy by the black economy is by its very nature hard to estimate. In Europe figures of up to 20% are mentioned, depending on country and author. The UN estimates that the proceeds from crime that enter the legal economy every year represent between 2% and 5% of global GDP. Once a particular sector of the legal economy is penetrated the logic of money laundering literally swallows up the competition and entire sectors of the economy – and government - fall into criminal hands.
The real dilemma for EU governments is therefore how to preserve their global political position, real or perceived (i.e. by voting with the US to maintain the UN drug conventions in their present form)  while at the same time preserving their legitimacy at home in spite of the role they have given to organised crime in managing the drugs market).
Next steps - the case for amending the conventions
Given the dilemma our governments are in, beating up Bolivia in New York and paying it off with economic assistance that it cannot refuse was clearly the easiest option. In any case, it was clear once again at last month's CND in Vienna that European unity on reforming drug policy remains elusive.
It is much easier to leave laws in place than to get rid of them. Bad laws however undermine the rule of law. The European Union is a unique political construct based very firmly on the rule of law. It cannot afford to discredit the legitimacy that it has struggled to build up over more than 50 years. It should therefore be aware of the fact if laws on drugs are made irrelevant by consistently countervailing practice by governments and citizens alike there is no guarantee that other laws might not be equally ignored one day. Place this in the context of the interpenetration between the legal and illegal economies that is taking place on the back of the illicit drug trade and you begin to see the potential for the unraveling of a society based on the rule of law. I believe that this is both a good reason and a starting point for reviewing the UN drug conventions in the light of the lessons learnt since 1961, without getting into the usual legalisation vs. prohibition debate.

The next question of course is how this is to be done, or rather by whom? I am quite sure that it cannot be done without the consent and even leadership of theUS.Americain effect created the current system, and the liveliest debate on changing it is going on there. The EU may have the right kind of experience in humane drug policies but too many of its national governments depend on right-wing electorates at the moment and are unlikely to want to rock the boat by engaging in a fundamental debate on this unless they are firmly encouraged.
What may help both the USand the EU is the growing opposition in Latin Americato the excesses inherent in the system and the recent launch of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which was inspired by the Latin American Commission convened by former presidents Cardoso of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia and Zedillo of Mexico in 2009. 

The first practical step would be for the US, the Latin Americans, and the EU to get together. All they have to agree on at this stage is to have a real and open debate about the conventions and the institutional machinery that has to implement them rather than the charades that we have witnessed in the CND in recent years. Such a debate should look at the facts only, and steer well clear of the moral fundamentalisms, be they “for” or “against” that have dominated this discussion for a century.
It is crucial that subsequent steps should not be prejudged at this stage. They should emerge from the debate and be in keeping with social and political reality and, to quote the 1961 Convention, with “the health and welfare of mankind”. To do this, our governments may have to take difficult decisions. That is why we voted for them.

Carel Edwards
The author is the former Head of the Drugs Policy Coordination Unit at the European Commission and a member of the advisory council of LEAP.
Brussels, 4 April 2011