This summer, the European Union officially created the EU Drugs Agency. This new body will have a larger budget, more staff, and a more ambitious mandate than its predecessor, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
While this seems like a positive development on paper, a closer look reveals a shift towards a more repressive and securitised approach to drug policy emanating from Brussels. This is occurring at the same time as the far-right expands its political influence across Europe. What sort of drug policies will the EU devise under this double pressure?
A new EU drug policy is coming, but will it be reactionary?
The making of a new EU drug policy
Currently, European drug policy is fractured. The EU Drugs Strategy 2021-25 – the overarching strategy for EU institutions and its 27 Member States – is one of the most progressive drug strategies in the world. It recognises harm reduction as a pillar of European drug policy, equal in status to supply reduction and demand reduction. It also contains explicit commitments to human rights, health equity, gender sensitivity and non-stigmatising drug responses. In international debates, the EU continues to advocate for a global drug control regime that is centred on health and human rights.
However, EU drug policies are not binding. Member States are not obliged to implement them, and often do not. This means that harm reduction, while recognised across the continent, is often underfunded. Services are at the mercy of changing political priorities and risk closure, as has happened in Greece and Bulgaria. Across the EU, there is a feeling that the centre of gravity is shifting to the right.
The European Commission is committed to push the EU towards a securitised paradigm. In 2016, the drugs portfolio was transferred from the Commission’s Justice Department to Migration and Home Affairs (also known as DG Home), reducing its size. This was a consequential decision. DG Home is perhaps best known for being the Department responsible for Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, which is routinely accused of serious human rights violations, including covering up the deaths of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
It has become clear that DG Home wants to bring a similarly 'tough' approach to drug policymaking. In 2019, when discussions for the EU Drugs Strategy 2021-25 had not yet started, DG Home surprisingly produced its own strategy document – the EU Agenda and Action Plan on Drugs 2021-25. Developed in a hasty and opaque process, this Agenda proposed a 'paradigm-shift' towards a 'bold drugs policy agenda'. This 'shift' meant deprioritising health responses, focusing instead on law enforcement, security, and interdiction. The agenda was released in a statement that equated drug policy to combatting child abuse and firearms trafficking.
This attempt to reinvent EU drug policy ultimately failed, in part thanks to a forceful response by European civil society, and subsequent push back from various Member States, especially from Germany, which held the EU Presidency at that time.
Nonetheless, the European Commission made it clear that, if they had their way, drugs would be dealt with through a security and law enforcement lens. The creation of the new EU Drugs Agency followed a similar pattern.
EU increasingly replacing health with law enforcement
As a drugs observatory, the EMCDDA is globally lauded. However, the European Commission declared it was increasingly disconnected with 'today’s drug phenomenon'. Its initial proposal sought to shift the EMCDDA’s historical focus on health towards supply reduction and interdiction. As to health responses, the Commission was clear: prevention was to be promoted over harm reduction. The statement that accompanied the proposal was a textbook example of 'war-on-drugs' rhetoric, with plenty of mentions of gangs, organised crime and various other existential threats to Europe.
Thanks to the intervention of the European Parliament and various Member States, the EU Drug Agency’s final text is more measured, and it continues to prioritise the health dimension of drug policies. The lead negotiator on behalf of the European Parliament, MEP Isabel Santos, ensured that the new agency will report on the human rights and social aspects of the drug phenomenon – the first time it ever happened. There is also a commitment to create a new mechanism to facilitate cooperation with civil society. But the devil will be in the details. It is unclear how much of the very significant budget increase will be directed at law enforcement-related activities and how much will strengthen the EMCDDA’s current focus on health.
Whilst this unfolds, Brussels continues to promote a securitised narrative on drugs. In 2021, the Commission discontinued project funding for the EU Civil Society Forum on Drugs (CSFD), an expert group comprised mainly of health-focused NGOs. The European Commission’s Internal Security Fund, which contains a budget line for drug policy grants, only funds supply reduction and prevention interventions. In February 2023, the chief executive at DG Home blamed people who use drugs for the death of a girl murdered by an organised criminal group.
The very metrics used to understand drugs within Europe lean towards a enforcement-only view of drugs. The Eurobarometer survey on the 'impact of drugs in the communities', released in February 2022, does not have a single question on responses to drugs based on health and on supporting vulnerable people. For instance, the survey’s first question asks if 'people using or dealing drugs are a very serious problem, somewhat serious, not too serious, or not a problem at all'. This is troubling from an institution supposedly committed to ending stigma.
The European Commission correctly highlights that supply control policies have failed for decades. Through global prohibition, drug use has remained stable, and drug markets have not been reduced. What the Commission has never explained is why it believes that deprioritising health interventions – particularly when there is a serious concern around a poisoned drug supply and overdoses– is a wise choice. Can it claim to take a new 'bold drugs policy agenda', when it is just proposing more of the same?
A threat rising in the far right
In recent years, we have seen across Europe the rise of politics based on fear of others, societal anxiety, and an endless pursuit for security. Parties with far-right – at least xenophobic, if not racist – rhetoric now govern Italy, Finland, Hungary, Poland, and Sweden, and perhaps soon Spain. Similar trends are seen in Germany and France, the two largest power-brokers in the EU. It is hard to imagine a future EU where policymakers are not from these parties, or seriously influenced by them. Its ideological tenets are increasingly normalised.
At first sight, drug policy is not central to the rise of the far right, but it is clear that a new status quo even more tilted towards conservative and authoritarian positions will favour a securitised approach to drugs, flattening the complex social, cultural, and health factors underlying and surrounding drug use. We can already see an intensification of the narratives that demonise and criminalise specific communities deemed ‘undesirable’, who will in turn have less access to harm reduction, treatment and other health and social support.
If this trend develops further in Brussels, the EU’s focus on human rights may dwindle, including in international drug policy debates. Harm reduction and drug policy reform advocates will continue to be defunded, or have their access constrained to symbolic participation. EU legislation will continue to be an obstacle to the emergence of legally regulated markets for cannabis, as it is now reported to be.
Optimistic thoughts for a progressive EU drug policy
There are reasons to be optimistic. European harm reductionists have remained resilient despite hostile environments. Some of the most interesting innovations in drug policy and harm reduction, from cannabis social clubs, drug checking in darknet markets, or foundational harm reduction practices, came from Europe. The debate over the legal regulation of cannabis is now thriving in many countries - although EU regulations are widely regarded as a barrier to legalisation. Against that background, I would like to share three proposals.
Staying united and connected should be a priority. In contrast with the United States, we are often set apart by language, political cultures, and traditions. There is no natural space to be together across countries – unless we create it ourselves. Events such as the European Harm Reduction Conference, networks such as the Correlation-European Harm Reduction Network and the European Network of People Who Use Drugs, transnational campaigns such as Support. Don’t Punish, are all essential. Preserving and growing these spaces is critical – and donors should be aware of that too.
Secondly, drug policy reform and harm reduction must become more visible across EU institutions and democratic processes. The negotiations for the EU Drug Agency showed the importance of having key allies within the European Council and European Parliament that share the same values within harm reduction. Additional champions for drug policy reform must be identified.
The next European Parliament elections will be in June 2024. Following the elections, a new European Commission will be instituted. This will be an extraordinary opportunity to mobilise candidates around a progressive drug policy manifesto, which should include support for harm reduction, for strong civil society participation, and for a welcoming framework for the legal regulation of cannabis. Structural changes on how EU drug policy is designed, including an explicit policymaking role for health bodies, should be included.
Lastly, we should intentionally expand the diversity of our movement, making sure that it is as diverse as the communities most impacted by European drug policies. This should be integrated as a priority in every European network, conference, or campaign – both by donors and by activists themselves. It will also mean growing networks of solidarity with groups that are also suffering from the growing far-right influence within Europe.
None of these actions are easy, and they all require long-term, sustained investment, in time and energy as much as in funding. But we are lucky that many people and organisations in Europe are already working towards this goal– so that no one must resist alone.