In recent months we have seen several Latin American initiatives to promote alternatives to drug control based in prohibition, while Europe has remained fairly silent on the issue.  This may be because of difficulties posed by the diversity of views among European Union (EU) member states or perhaps it is because the EU has become a little complacent about public health and harm reduction. Either way, Europe is failing to lead the global debate on drug policy reform and in several EU member states pragmatic approaches towards the issue of drugs are under threat from political, ideological and financial pressures.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy and the International Drug Policy Consortium took this discussion to Brussels last month. On May 29, we co-organised a seminar “Modernising the global drug control system – Can Europe lead?” at the European Parliament. During the event, co-hosted by the Member of Parliament (MEP) Nikos Chrysogelos, we called on the EU to break the taboo on drug policy reform, and for EU institutions to show true leadership in global drug policy debates.

Michel Kazatchkine and Pavel Bem, the two Commissioners who participated in the panel discussion, highlighted the fact that a drug policy rationale that is based on zero-tolerance and the harsh punishment of people who use drugs has failed to curb the global drug market.   Instead, we have seen a raft of serious negative consequences as a result of the over-reliance on policies that prioritise supply reduction, incarceration and tough law enforcement, these include an increase in the reach and power of organised crime, deepening the marginalisation of vulnerable communities and an HIV epidemic among people who inject drugs.

It was a positive experience to be facing a room full of MEPs who did not shy away from discussing the difficult issues during our joint meeting with the Global Commission. MEP Sir Graham Watson (UK), for example, declared, “I would like to plead for moving away from prohibition”. Mr Chrysogelos (Greece) added, “Since prohibitive policies have failed in their primary objectives and they have proven ineffective, with a clear overweight of cost over benefits, there is an urgent need to reform them towards better regulation that would reduce the harms to users, society and the economy”. The remarks of Pierre Vimont, the Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS), were also positive. While acknowledging the difficulties faced by the EU in holding a unified view on drug policy, he did make it clear that it was necessary for EU representatives and EU focal point diplomats from around the world to achieve a coherent and agreed discourse on drug policy.

On the afternoon of May 29, IDPC and the Global Commission held a civil society seminar on similar issues. Participants at the seminar shared a belief that it is important for the new EU Drugs Strategy to be based on evidence, and that regional leadership is important for many member states. At the same time, the role of civil society and grassroots activism at country level should not be neglected, as it is to a large extent the member states that are shaping the future European strategy. Balanced and well-functioning national drug policies, which respect human rights and public health principles, backed by civil society and general public support form a strong argument for policymakers who represent their societies at international forums. The discussions also touched upon issues related to the willingness of the EU to engage in meaningful debate around drug policy reform and harm reduction, and strategies that could be implemented to encourage more leadership among EU institutions.

These two seminars clearly reflect the fact that a number of MEPs and the EEAS are interested in engaging in meaningful drug policy reform debates, whereas the European Commission and the DG-Justice seem to be more reluctant to show leadership on the drugs issue, at a time when the EU is reviewing its Drugs Strategy. Nevertheless, we were encouraged by the European Council’s conclusions on the EU Drugs Strategy released last week, which explicitly call for a balanced drug policy based on public health and human rights. We hope that the new EU Drug Strategy will follow this direction and that better leadership will be shown by all EU institutions to engage in a much needed debate on drug policy reform.

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