By Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights / Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe | Rapporteur: Hannah Bardell

Today’s challenges around societal problems associated with psychoactive substances (hereafter referred to as “drugs”) involve a multifaceted and complex policy area, including laws, regulations, strategies and funding priorities. Over the years, countries in Europe and beyond have faced evolving patterns of drug use, drug related harm and drug related crime. These can be closely interconnected with the effects of wars, conflicts, terrorism, trafficking in human beings, economic/financial instability and the criminal misuse of modern information and communication technologies (such as encrypted networks) they are confronted with. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)’s 2019 European Drug Report (EDR), drugs are widely available and in some areas even increasing in availability. Polydrug consumption is common and individual patterns of use range from experimental to habitual and dependent consumption. According to the UN 2019 World Drug Report (WDR), “in 2017, an estimated 271 million people, or 5.5% of the global population aged 15–64, had used drugs”.

This so-called “drug problem” has generated severe harm and risks for the health and safety of those concerned and societies in general. Individual vulnerabilities and the social context in which drugs are consumed often aggravate the situation. According to the 2019 WDR, some 35 million people globally suffer from drug use disorders which require treatment. More than 11 million people worldwide inject drugs. Among those, roughly one in eight people live with human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV). 5.6 million live with hepatitis C. More than half a million people worldwide died as a result of drug use in 2017. More than half of those deaths were the result of untreated hepatitis C. In Europe, an ageing cohort of opioid users remains a health concern; cocaine users also increasingly seek treatment, most often for polydrug use.

Until recently, there was a global understanding that the best way to deal with drug-related issues was to focus on reducing, and ultimately eliminating, the illicit production, supply and use of narcotic and psychoactive substances. The Social Affairs Committee noted in 2015 that “drug-control efforts […] focusing on repression have been responsible for generating large-scale human rights abuses, including the violation of the right to health, and disastrous consequences in terms of public health.” For instance, repression may lead to contaminated and more harmful drugs of unknown quality being sold and riskier methods of drug use being sought. History reveals indeed that there has never been any society without psychoactive drugs, begging the question whether a world free of drugs is a realistic aim. Strong evidence also suggests that the consequences of purely repressive policies include also death, violence, ill-treatment, discrimination, stigmatisation, marginalisation, disproportionate sentencing and prison overcrowding.

The principle of subsidiarity reflected in international human rights instruments, including the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention), gives Council of Europe member States a significant margin of appreciation for drug policy development – and there is evidently a wide array of possible responses based on national, cultural and economic contexts. Recent developments in drug policy have put increasing emphasis on a comprehensive, integrated, balanced, and scientific evidence-based approach which closely intersects public health, socio-economic, human rights, sustainable development and decriminalisation governments responsibilities.