Europe needs to unite on reform of drug policy

When the EU stands together, we are a powerful union with real clout that is listened to around the globe

Nick Clegg
Thursday 01 October 2015 21:07 BST
In the United States, zero tolerance and mass imprisonment has given way to a willingness to allow states to experiment
In the United States, zero tolerance and mass imprisonment has given way to a willingness to allow states to experiment (Getty Images)

On 19th April next year, the countries of the United Nations will meet in special session in New York to debate the future of global drugs policy. The starting gun on government negotiations for the summit was fired last week at a meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.

The last time one of these important events took place, in 1998, the proceedings were dominated by a US administration still deeply committed to the so-called ‘war on drugs’, the brainchild of Richard Nixon in 1971. In what now feels like an act of collective wishful thinking, the assembled member states solemnly committed themselves to the goal of “a drug-free world by 2008”.

Unsurprisingly, 2008 came and went. Instead of eradicating the production, supply and consumption of illicit drugs from the planet, the trade continues to thrive, raking in billions for organised crime. Well-meaning law enforcement efforts have had little if any long-term impact on supply. Violence in source and transit countries has soared (in Mexico alone, an estimated 100,000 people have died in the war on the cartels since 2006). All around the world, millions of people who use drugs continue to be prosecuted and imprisoned, wrecking lives and offering little if any deterrent to drug taking.

We are, without a doubt, losing the war on drugs.

But there are reasons to be hopeful. In recent years, a global movement for reform has been building. Led in particular by the governments of countries in Latin America that have suffered most, politicians and policymakers around the globe have started to question the status quo. This isn’t a headlong rush to legalisation, but a patient, rational debate about alternative approaches which might reduce overall harm. In the United States, zero tolerance and mass imprisonment has given way to a willingness to allow states to experiment with alternative regulatory models - as Colorado, Washington, Oregon and others are doing with cannabis - and a growing disquiet at the injustice and social impacts of imprisoning hundreds of thousands of young, mainly black, men for drug offences. In Europe, governments have tended to take a more balanced and health-based approach, and are developing and evaluating a number of ideas, from wholesale decriminalisation to safe injecting spaces for intravenous drug users.

The objective of progressive drug policy reformers is clear: this UN special session should mark a clear departure from 50 years of policies and strategies that emphasise repression and punishment as the solution to the drug problem, and replace them with approaches that emphasise improvements in health, human rights, and security. The current UN rules are out of date, the product of a time when the US and others championed a ‘one size fits all’ prohibitionist approach. Now, they are holding back the innovation that is so desperately needed.

Turning round a failed policy remains a challenging goal. There is no consensus among UN member states on the future direction of international drug policy. Some countries are determined to enact new approaches, but others like Egypt, Pakistan, and Russia are equally keen to use the summit to reinforce the status quo. While the long-term goal must be to create a framework which permits sensible, evidence-based reform, the wording of the UN drug treaties (which have to be agreed by consensus) is not up for discussion at this time. But what is potentially within our sights is an international drive to reduce the use of punishment for drug users; a commitment to ending the death penalty for drug offences; an expansion of treatment and public health programmes that improve health, social inclusion, and security; and international co-operation that facilitates, rather than blocks, policy experimentation.

There is much to play for, but a real risk that this opportunity for modernisation will be lost if the hardliners are allowed to assert their position unchallenged. Until now, European leaders have been all but silent on international drug policy reform. And yet the EU is home to many shining examples of governments brave enough to think differently about the drug problem - Portugal, Denmark, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Netherlands, Spain - the list goes on. But at this crucial juncture, Europe has yet to champion careful reform with one voice.

When Europe stands together, we are a powerful union with real clout that is listened to around the globe. We have a choice to make on drug policy: stand together for our values, or have them dictated to us by countries with very different priorities. The irony is that where Europe once led, we are now laggards behind both Latin America and the USA. It's time to reassert European leadership.

I have seen for myself the tendency for governments to place drugs reform in the "too difficult" category. The UN summit next year should serve as a catalyst for politicians across the EU to give this issue the focus it deserves. That’s why over the coming months I will be speaking to colleagues around Europe to encourage them to speak up.

Instead of criminalising millions of young people and setting unrealistic goals like eradicating all drugs, now is the time to encourage governments to look for evidence-based alternatives. There is much already to be learned from the European experience. The momentum for reform is powerful and in the right direction - let’s not squander it.

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