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Welfare and Social Issues

Green Observatory: Drug Policy

Over the past decade or so, a movement for drug policy reform has grown in strength and a shift has occurred in many countries: the goal of eradication through a ‘war on drugs’ has gradually been abandoned, and a new approach based on harm reduction, public health, and human rights has been implemented. This shift has been driven by the realisation that criminalisation of the symptoms of the problem is neither effective nor sustainable, given that this issue intersects with so many other aspects of society – from prison conditions to the informal economy to social and global inequalities. Discussions and efforts to reach agreements at a supranational level have been largely thwarted by the fact that, across Europe and beyond, national contexts and patterns of consumption vary widely, underpinned by hugely different social attitudes and cultural approaches.

Some countries have experimented with novel approaches such as needle exchange programmes, drug consumption facilities, and partial decriminalisation, with Portugal being internationally acclaimed as the beacon of progressive solutions after moving to decriminalise all drugs in 2001. Yet others remain stubbornly attached to the idea of drug prohibition.

Greens have traditionally been on the libertarian side of the debate on drugs. This general approach requires, however, regular updates as circumstances change and new challenges emerge, such as current debates surrounding the medical use of drugs and dilemmas facing healthcare providers, as well as the proliferation of new psychoactive substances (NPS) or so-called ‘legal highs’.

Caroline Saal, Belgium

How has drug policy in Belgium evolved in recent years? Is the current system of drug policy working? Is there a public debate about drug policy reform?

Following 20 years of lobbying by health and social workers, politicians are finally taking responsibility by speaking out in favour of minimal risk ‘consumption rooms’. The town of Liège will open one in September. This is an important step. All the neighbouring countries have them, with incontestable results: fewer overdoses, improved states of health, and better creation of social ties.

However, the law regulating drug policy, which dates back to 1921 and emphasises repression above all, remains a brake on Belgian health policies. Many politicians refuse to engage in a broader debate on drug consumption. Consumption rooms have been authorised for three years, but what will happen after this? Will we go backwards, as happened in the case of treatment with medical heroin, which was allowed for two years and then suspended? Will doctors again risk finding themselves locked up for attempting to take care of people dependent on illegal substances? The drug prevention, treatment and care sector has decided to offer financial support for all workers and institutions who might face the courts. Various actors have also launched the Stop 1921 campaign to collectively amend the current law and base it around the health of drug users.

What are the priorities and proposals put forward by the Greens in Belgium and other progressive actors?

For Greens, the 1921 law has failed – it has not stopped drug use, it has just criminalised drug users and prevented access to care. Prohibition also leads to the stigmatisation of drug users, who then have difficulty talking to their doctors – who also might not be trained for detecting drug users and monitoring them.

We therefore want drug policy to be first and foremost a public health policy and are pushing for a review of the distribution of funding in this area, away from the police arsenal and towards prevention, risk reduction, and care. We support the full legalisation of social health practices such as consumption rooms or prescribed heroin.

In Belgium, the most commonly sold drug is alcohol. It is a cultural drink. Belgians must learn to consume it in ways that limit the risks and long-term effects on their health. But alcohol producers put pressure on politicians to prevent a drop in sales. Regulating advertising of alcohol (in particular refraining from targeting young people), and providing free water in restaurants and nightclubs to allow people to rehydrate and pause between drinks are two concrete proposals, but for which there will be a tough fight ahead.

Jan Trnka, Czech Republic

How has drug policy in the Czech Republic evolved in recent years? Is the current system of drug policy working? Is there a public debate about drug policy reform?

The evolution of drug policy in the Czech Republic has been very slow in the past few years. The only topic which is somewhat debated publicly and in the political arena is the possibility of legalising cannabis products for recreational use, but so far not even one legislative proposal has been put forward for this. This is especially surprising in view of the fact that smoking cannabis recreationally is very common and generally socially accepted in our country. The last significant step forward in this area was the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2013, but the state administration has been glacially slow in enabling patients to access it. Over the past five years only a few kilograms of cannabis have been prescribed and it is hard to say whether this is deliberate or more due to incompetence.

What are the priorities and proposals put forward by the Czech Greens and other progressive actors?

The Czech Greens have been at the forefront of attempts to legalise recreational use of cannabis and in our political programme we propose the decriminalisation of all drugs and (where applicable) enabling their use in medical treatment (especially psychedelics and MDMA). So far, due to our very small representation in the national legislative bodies we have been unable to introduce our own legislative proposals, but we are committed to furthering public education and debate on these topics.

David Belliard, France

How has drug policy in France evolved in recent years? Is the current system of drug policy working? Is there a public debate about drug policy reform?

Drug policies are evolving very slowly. France remains very hypocritical: our legal framework is extremely prohibitive in this area even though France is the country where, for example, young people consume the most cannabis in Europe. As we can see, our policy is particularly ineffective – it does not allow for fighting against drug consumption but it puts numerous barriers to the care of drug users and prohibits prevention in this area. Worse still, it sustains a black market. While the debate seems to have stalled, public opinion and that of policy-makers evoke the need to change policy, in accordance with the views of the great majority of drug and health experts. An overwhelming majority of French people today are in favour of the legalisation of cannabis for therapeutic use, and the legalisation of this substance is no longer a taboo, even if resistance is extremely widespread.

What are the priorities and proposals put forward by the Greens in France and other progressive actors?

For Greens, the priority is health. For us, nothing is worse than prohibition, which puts drug users in the realm of illegality. It hinders the possibilities for taking care of drug users, blocks prevention, and leads to the presence on the market of products of bad quality – and thus bad for health, as well as maintaining organised crime networks. More seriously, differences in enforcement are arbitrary: when drug users are apprehended by police forces, some enjoy a certain leniency but others not. We recommend a significant change of gear, at least regarding cannabis, with the legalisation of consumption for therapeutic and recreational use and the sale of its substances.

The public authorities must oversee distribution, check sources of supply, and ensure the quality of products on offer. Finally, we want the resources available to the police to be primarily directed towards the fight against organised crime networks and for prevention plans to be put into action.

Dieter Janecek, Germany

How has drug policy in Germany evolved in recent years? Is the current system of drug policy working? Is there a public debate about drug policy reform?

Except for minor steps, such as allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis for medical reasons within very strict boundaries, Germany has maintained its prohibition policies even though public opinion is shifting steadily towards liberalisation. But criminal prosecution of cannabis possession is not enforced in all German states to the same degree. Some state governments — usually with Green involvement — have raised their ‘tolerance’, not prosecuting possession up to a certain amount. My home state, Bavaria, however, is known as the most restrictive state for its rigorous approach towards both illegal and legal users.

Most Germans continue to support the prohibition of cannabis, but a slim majority (according to a 2017 poll) supports decriminalisation of consumers. Regarding other illicit drugs, there are no major pushes towards legalisation. Nevertheless, some states and municipalities have introduced ‘clean needle’ programmes and drug-use rooms, so far without support from federal governments or legislation.

What are the priorities and proposals put forward by the Greens in Germany and other progressive actors?

The German Greens in the Bundestag proposed a cannabis control act in 2015. It contains regulation for selling recreational cannabis to adults in specialised stores, while maintaining the prohibition for minors. It also includes a ban on any type of advertisement. Prices would remain at the accustomed level by applying high taxes to prevent an increase of cannabis consumption due to fallen prices. Greens have highlighted the lack of efficient youth protection because of the current inability to control cannabis sales at all, the unjust criminalisation of (adult) users, and the lack of quality control. 

After the 2017 general elections, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) made its way back to parliament, actively supporting a liberalisation of cannabis policy and having recently proposed pilot projects for legalisation. The left-wing Die Linke and most of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) also support legalisation. Even though some parts of the conservative parties CDU and their Bavarian counterpart CSU support legalisation, the vast majority still opposes it, as does the right-wing extremist Alternative for Germany (AfD). In 2015 my colleague in parliament, Dr. Joachim Pfeiffer (CDU), and I proposed a regulated market for cannabis to combat crime effectively, marking the only Green-conservative initiative on that matter, to my knowledge.

The Green Youth in Germany supports controlled legalisation of all drugs, applying the same reasons put forward for the legalisation of cannabis, but most Greens would not go that far. Generally, all Greens agree that there is a need to protect users and non-users by controlling and regulating drug use instead of criminalising it.

Iga Kender-Jeziorska, Hungary

How has drug policy in Hungary evolved in recent years? Is the current system of drug policy working? Is there a public debate about drug policy reform?

In recent years, Hungarian drug policy has been strongly based on a zero-tolerance approach. In fact, since the conservative turn in 2010, professionals in the field talk about a regression. The 2013 National Anti-Drug Strategy aims for a “drug-free Hungary by 2020”. After 2010, funding for harm reduction programmes decreased significantly. In 2014 and 2015, the two biggest needle exchange programmes in Budapest were closed for political reasons. As a result of a very unfavourable environment for harm reduction organisations, the number of distributed needles dropped drastically; at the same time, over five years the prevalence of Hepatitis C among people who inject drugs doubled. Substance use is de jure criminalised, but the possibility of detention is limited. There is a debate about drug policy reform among the professionals working in the field, but it does not seem to attract any political attention – quite the contrary.

What are the priorities and proposals put forward by the Greens in Hungary and other progressive actors?

The Politics Can Be Different (LMP) party is rather silent on the topic; it does not appear in their programme. However, a few politicians from LMP have expressed rather liberal views, for example supporting needle exchange programmes. The socially liberal Together party (Együtt) would like to introduce cannabis legalisation for medical purposes, decriminalise drug use, and put emphasis on harm reduction instead of law enforcement. The Momentum Movement (a recently founded party consisting mainly of young people), besides supporting the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes, also supports the decriminalisation of possession and cultivation for personal use. The social-democratic Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) developed two progressive drug strategies in the late 1990s and 2000s. They are not very vocal on the drugs topic, but they don’t support restrictive solutions.

Professionals and NGOs are advocating for many reforms, from scaling up existing harm reduction services to the decriminalisation of possession and the introduction of safe drug consumption rooms. However, in Hungary, drug policy has never been at the centre of political attention and has never been considered a particularly important topic.

Kathalijne Buitenweg, the Netherlands

How has drug policy in the Netherlands evolved in recent years? Is the current system of drug policy working? Is there a public debate about drug policy reform?

The current system is not perceived as functioning effectively. Many people are worried about organised crime, which profits from the current ambiguous policy. 

Currently it is only ‘tolerated’ that coffee shops sell cannabis. There is a promise that no action will be taken as long as the coffee shop meets certain standards, such as that one can only buy a maximum of 5 grams of cannabis in any single transaction. But the rules only concern the ‘front door’. The ‘back door’ is still a problem. It is against the law to grow marijuana and cannabis plants in large quantities. As a result, the market is in the hands of criminals. And their influence in certain neighbourhoods is increasing, they press citizens to grow plants and nobody dares to object. This phenomenon is highly worrying.

The biggest misunderstanding about the Netherlands is that it is a frontrunner in this area. We see countries like Canada as leading by example.

What are the priorities and proposals put forward by the Greens in the Netherlands and other progressive actors?

GroenLinks does not turn a blind eye to the effects of any drugs on people’s health or general well-being. Yet, we try as much as possible to foster a rational policy on this. Concretely, this means we want to legalise the cultivation and trade of soft drugs. That is not yet the case in the Netherlands. By legalising cannabis, we want to regulate the ‘back door’. It will damage the trade by criminals and allow the police and justice authorities to focus on crime that is more damaging to citizens and our communities.

The Greens also want to ensure that soft drugs meet strict quality standards (also regarding their growth). The misuse of all kinds of drugs needs to be discouraged by providing better information on this and by banning advertisements for addictive substances.

Hard drugs must remain prohibited. However, GroenLinks wants a different approach to the problems that result from the use of hard drugs. People who use drugs need to know what they are taking. That is why GroenLinks wants to make it possible to test drugs at large-scale events such as techno parties.

Small-scale user rooms for hard-drug addicts must be created in all major cities. This reduces the inconvenience on the streets. In a number of cities, heroin is provided on medical prescription under strict conditions. GroenLinks wants to expand this, combined with psychosocial care. This works better than being made to give up by force.

Adam Ostolski, Poland

How has drug policy in Poland evolved in recent years? Is the current system of drug policy working? Is there a public debate about drug policy reform?

Poland came out of communist times with the 1985 liberal drug law that was focused on public health and fighting organised crime. Democratic change brought a more repressive approach: in 1997, drug possession was made a criminal offence.

Recent years have brought inconsistent, even contradictory, changes and the Civic Platform government (2007-2015) left a mixed legacy. In summer 2010, after cases of young people poisoned by the use of legal highs, then Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced a war on new psychoactive substances, making their sale an administrative offence. A list of prohibited substances was also to be regularly updated by parliament. While the number of registered cases of poisoning initially fell, ultimately there was a substantial rise – an unintended consequence of the legislation.[1] Each time the list of prohibited substances is updated, the market comes up with new drugs of unknown health impact, usually more dangerous.

Due to pressure from civil society, the government introduced Article 62a in 2011, giving prosecutors discretion to drop investigations in minor cases of people possessing small amounts of drugs for their own use. However, the government refused to define “small amount” and, according to a 2015 study, some 40 per cent of regional prosecutor offices did not use the new powers.

The Law and Justice government finally legalised the use of medicinal marijuana in 2017, though it is not easily available, is not covered by the national health insurance, and may not be grown in Poland but has to be imported. The government continues the war on legal highs. In July 2018, their sale was upgraded from administrative to criminal offence and the power to update the list of prohibited substances was delegated from the parliament to the Ministry of Health, which is a clear violation of civil rights and the rule of law. The act was adopted nearly unanimously, with enthusiastic support from the opposition. In terms of drug policy, there is no ‘good change’ in Poland, only a bad continuation.

What are the priorities and proposals put forward by the Greens in the Poland and other progressive actors?

Drug policy reform is advocated by various organisations ranging from the Free Hemps, a social movement of marijuana users that organises marches through NGOs working with addicts, to expert circles such as the Krytyka Polityczna that provides regular analysis of ongoing changes in legislation. From its inception, the Polish Green Party has stood for a progressive drug policy based on human rights, addiction prevention, and harm reduction. A list of policy proposals adopted by the party’s national council in May 2016 includes: introducing a table of threshold quantities for drug offences in order to legally define a “small amount” of drugs for own use; amnesty for those convicted due to possession of a small amount of drugs; improving the availability of substitution therapies, medical marijuana, and opiates for pain relief; creating a network of day community centres and shelters for drug addicts; better cooperation between local authorities and NGOs working with drug addicts users; and the right for every adult citizen to grow three plants of hemp for own use.

Elia Sabbarese, Spain

How has drug policy in the Spain evolved in recent years? Is the current system of drug policy working? Is there a public debate about drug policy reform?

To understand whether drug policy has been evolving in recent years or not we have to focus on the main plan in Spain to fight against drug consumption since 1985. It is called the National Drugs Plan (Plan Nacional Sobre las Drogas) and the budget allocated in each term shows how drug policy has evolved. Between 2003 and 2009, around 32 million euros were earmarked per year. Whereas between 2013 and 2017, the budget decreased to 14.7 million euros per year. The conclusion is that the People’s Party (PP) government is less interested in fighting against drug consumption and that this problem, which belongs to the national healthcare area, is not a priority.

Drug policy does not appear in the Spanish political scene as an urgent topic. Nevertheless, it is important to note both that society knows how widespread drug consumption is among youth and non-youth leisure, and that educational institutions are concerned about this issue. They have to be engaged with this issue, as educational institutions are among the most important areas where prevention policies and prevention work must be carried out.

What are the priorities and proposals put forward by the Greens in Spain and other progressive actors?

One of Equo’s positions is that restrictive political strategies and stigmatising drug users does not decrease the number of drug users. Assuming otherwise is a failed starting point, and the goal should be building a scientific debate on drug policies focused on repealing the stigma, reducing health risks, and minimising drug-related crimes. Drug policy should be focused on harm reduction, for which several measures can be considered and analysed individually, taking into account the characteristics and the framework of each region or community where they should be implemented.

Since prolonging the moral debate does not reduce the harmful conditions of people suffering from an addiction, society and political actors should gradually abandon this position and create a debate with concrete and destigmatising measures.

Natalie Bennett, United Kingdom

How has drug policy in the UK evolved in recent years? Is the current system of drug policy working? Is there a public debate about drug policy reform?

UK policy is an evidence-free zone, with the failed “war on drugs” strongly defended by the Conservative Government and the party’s 2017 manifesto even suggesting a strengthening of this approach. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has as an individual backed decriminalisation of cannabis in the past and Labour’s 2017 manifesto mentioned reducing the use of prison sentences for drugs offences. 

A more harm reduction-based approach has prompted the Scottish parliament to call for a law change allowing a safe ‘fix room’ in Glasgow. Some festivals are providing testing of drugs for safety, with police and Public Health England backing, and growing numbers of senior police figures are also arguing for a move away from prohibition. 

There is an ongoing public debate about drug policy reform and, crucially, widespread calls to take politics and ideology out of the picture and instead follow the evidence. 51 per cent of people are in favour of the regulation of drugs for recreational use and there are strong NGO campaigns in favour of decriminalisation, with the money the government could raise from the regulated sale of drugs among their arguments – 3.5 billion pounds a year on one estimate. Meanwhile, Class A drug use is estimated to cost more than 15.4 billion pounds a year. There is considerable concern about rising drug deaths (3450 in 2016) while treatment services have been significantly cut.

The high-profile case of Billy Caldwell, a child suffering from epilepsy who was hospitalised following the confiscation of his cannabis oil medicine at London’s Heathrow airport, has led to a new licencing system for medicinal cannabis which has overwhelming public support.

What are the priorities and proposals put forward by the Greens?

For decades, the Green Party has called for an end to the war on drugs, and for it to be replaced by regulation coupled with a harm-minimisation approach focused on treating problematic drug use as a health issue. Green MP Caroline Lucas has been a prominent campaigner on the issue in parliament. Her call for an impact assessment of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act won the backing for more than 100 000 petitioners.

The Green Party policies also focus on current legal drugs, such as nicotine and alcohol, and call for tighter controls on their promotion and stronger penalties for drink driving. It also calls for strengthening of education about the harms of all drug use, both currently legal and illegal, and improvements in health care for drug users.

 

[1] The number of registered cases of poisoning in Poland initially fell from 562 in 2010, then quickly rose and peaked in 2015 with 7 358 cases, before stabilising at 4200-4300 yearly cases afterwards.

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Green Observatory: Drug Policy

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