The five members of the Core Group of the Civil Society Forum on Drugs (CSF), an expert body of the EU Commision, came to Brussels this week to attend the coordination meeting of EU member states on drug policy. The Lithuanian EU Presidency invited us to make a presentation (download the PPT here) about two subjects: our concept of a meaningful involvement of civil society in the formulation of EU drug policies, and our views on the UN General Assembly Sesssion on Drugs that will be held in New York in 2016, where governments will have the opportunity to review international drug control policies.

The current EU Action Plan on Drugs clearly mandates member states to “ensure the participation of civil society in drug policy”, including “timely dialogues” between the EU Civil Society Forum on Drugs and the Horizontal Working Party on Drugs, the coordination body of EU member states, that meets every months in Brussels. The HDG held its first joint meeting with the CSF in June, where both sides agreed that this cooperation will be mutually fruitful.

I had the privilege to be elected as head of the working group responsible for coordinating the work of the HDG and the CSF. This promising start made me optimistic about the prospects for cooperation. However, we were soon forced to realise that our concept of meaningful involvement for civil society differs from that of the majority of member states. For us, meaningful involvement meant a chance to recommend agenda items to the EU Presidency, being represented at the HDG meetings with observer status, and being able to comment at the end of the meetings, as well as obtaining adequate funding to operate as a Forum. Unfortunately, member states rejected our proposal, because they said there is no legal basis to involve us even as observers, so we can only attend those meetings to which the Presidency invites us, with our participation limited to specific agenda items where our input is explicitly requested.

We cannot communicate directly with the members of the HDG, because the EU Council Secretariat declined to provide us with contact information, due to privacy concerns. I think this is not fully in line with the letter and spirit of the Lisbon Treaty, which says that, “The institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society”. The HDG operates using taxpayer money, in order to formulate public policies affecting all the citizens of the European Union; members of the meetings are not present in their capacity as private individuals, but as representatives of governments, so their work ought to be transparent and accountable. We have online access only to the agenda of the HDG but the minutes of the meetings are not available, so we have no idea of the content of discussions and decisions.

At the HDG meeting we highlighted the preliminary findings of the survey we have been conducting among NGOs about the impact of the financial crisis on drug prevention, treatment, harm reduction and social reintegration services. Respondents indicated that NGOs have experienced dramatic budget cuts that put public health and social services at risk. In the first half of 2014, the Forum plans to publish a report on this issue.

The CSF made several recommendations to the European Union relating to UNGASS 2016; some of them are about the preparation process, others about the content of the political declaration to be adopted by the meeting. The Forum demands meaningful involvement for people who use drugs, and their families, as well as civil society organisations, and broader measures for assessing the success of drug policies. We recommended that the EU should promote the inclusion of harm reduction in the document, as well as ensuring access to essential medicines. We pointed out that member states of the UN should recognise the freedom of individual countries to experiment with innovative approaches, and the EU should advocate measurable indicators to ensure robust monitoring and evaluation.

We had mixed feelings about the HDG's reception of our recommendations. Some national delegates expressed concerns about our point on innovative approaches, suspecting it to be a Trojan horse for legalisation. Of course some of us do think that countries need to go beyond what is permitted by the drug conventions and follow the examples of Uruguay or Colorado in creating a legal regulation system for cannabis. But as Maria Phelan, the head of the CSF working group on UNGASS, pointed out at the meeting, the Forum is a diverse group of NGOs with diverse views on this subject: Its recommendation of innovation must therefore be understood as being made within the context of the international drug conventions.

The head of the Italian delegation was particularly critical of the CSF - going so far as to question our competence and legitimacy. He said he would like to see scientists and academics advising the HDG instead of organisations with uncertain expertise. Probably the distinguished delegate needs to refresh his knowledge on the concept of civil society as it is defined by the European Union. While many members of the Forum have degrees in science or arts, it aims to represent non-governmental organisations that pursue shared objectives, and feed specific grassroots experience to the Commission on drug policy. The selection process of the EU Commission ensures that NGOs with an international scope of work are included. The EU already has an institution to provide the science base for drug policies - the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), which is represented at HDG meetings.

Despite the hostility of some member states, the Core Group will be able to work closely with the HDG next year to give a voice to civil society, with its all diverse specialities. The new Greek presidency of the EU expressed a willingness to work closely with CSF; and the subject areas which we would like to prioritise - such as UNGASS, new psychoactive drugs, the impact of the financial crisis on drug services, and service quality standards – are also a priority for them.

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