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.

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