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Ahead of European Elections, Advocates Launch The Drug Policy Manifesto

In preparation for the upcoming European Parliament elections in June, Correlations European Harm Reduction Network (C-EHRN) have launched the 2024 Drug Policy Manifesto.

The Manifesto, initiated by C-EHRN and NEWNet Enjoying Safer Nightlife, proposes four guiding principles for a “pragmatic, innovative, and human rights-centred European drug policy” that would ensure a consistent application of drug policies across the bloc.

In a launch event this week, C-EHRN, along with UNITE and IDPC, highlighted the Manifesto’s ambitions as well as a plan of action.


Guiding principles

The Manifesto highlights that drug use within Europe has reached record levels, with concerns around the widespread appearance and prevalence of novel psychoactive substances. A record 8.5 tonnes of new psychoactive substances were seized in 2021 according to the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)’s 2023 European Drug Report: this includes 400 new compounds detected just in 2021. As of this year, the EMCDDA is monitoring a record 930 new psychoactive substances beyond the traditional drug markets of cannabis, heroin and other more established drug markets.

From synthetic cathinones to novel opioids, there is a plethora of substances with unknown safety profiles that have appeared as a consequence of harsh crackdown on traditional substances. That is why the Manifesto’s first principle is to ramp up investment in health and social care, calling on EU institutions to health interventions over law enforcement. This includes harm reduction services, such as HIV/AIDS and HCV prevention, take-home naloxone, drug consumption rooms and drug checking services.

Following this is the call to abandon war-on-drugs policies, which have failed to reduce the size of illegal drug markets, reduce market-related violence or reduce stigma around seeking support for drug-related issues. In practice, this means EU health and human rights bodies should take a guiding role in shaping European drug policies, ensuring they are not only directed by law enforcement agencies.

This is particularly important given the EMCDDA’s upcoming transformation into the EU Drugs Agency (EUDA). While its mandate seems to include an important role in civil society consultation, there have been concerns from civil society that the new EUDA will be a primarily security-focused vehicle that will de-prioritise health and human rights interventions in favour of combatting external threats (like transnational organised crime). Drug policy indicators should therefore expand to include social impacts of drug control – like access to services and respect for the rights of people who use drugs – along with crime prevention and demand reduction.

The Manifesto’s third ambition is to ensure civil society and community participation in policy-making, primarily through funding forums like the Civil Society Forum on Drugs in the EU. Beyond funding, their consultation should be meaningful, so that communities that will ultimately be impacted by these policies are able to influence their creation.

As a final principle, the Manifesto calls for the exploration of innovative approaches to drug markets, including their responsible regulation. With the European consensus on how to control drugs and their harms increasingly fragmented – with countries like Germany and Malta with legal cannabis models, and cities like Bern considering cocaine regulation– exploring and monitoring alternatives will allow for more evidence-based policies.


Challenges in uniting European drug policies

Given the non-binding nature of EU drug policymaking, the biggest challenge remains in ensuring the implementation of policies agreed upon by members. A fragmented drug policy landscape means that neighbouring countries can have divergent drug laws, with different permissions, penalties and punishments.

Cannabis laws in Central Europe illustrate this point: in Luxembourg, cannabis is legal to purchase, but only private consumption is allowed; only a maximum of three grams can be possessed in public. In Germany, public possession of up to 25 grams is allowed. In Belgium, public possession of cannabis is decriminalised, with a fine potentially awarded for “ostentatious” public possession. Moving cannabis between these countries could make someone liable to an international trafficking charge. Navigating this situation as a citizen, along with law enforcement officials with varying degrees of knowledge of drug laws, could be a legal and human rights nightmare.

“Cross-border collaboration is key when it comes to policies that are currently not an EU competency. Unaligned policies risk to hurt those that need the policies the most,” Sven Clement, an elected Luxembourgish Member of Parliament for the Pirate Party, told TalkingDrugs.

“While [countries] need to maintain legislative autonomy, we also need to put in place pragmatic cross-border solutions,” he added.


Putting the Manifesto to work

At its launch, 16 Members of the European Parliament (MEP) candidates have signed their support for the Manifesto, as well as other European Mayors and local councillors. Almost 300 civil society organisations have signed the document too.

Ultimately, the Manifesto would be most effective if it is implemented within European policymaking processes.

“Through this Manifesto, we want to empower European parliamentarians to lead a dialogue at the regional and national levels on effective drug policies centred on health and human rights,” said Beatrix Vas, Drug Policy Coordinator of UNITE.

Katrin Schiffer, Director of C-EHRN, told TalkingDrugs that they have called on MEPs to present the Manifesto to the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, which deals with issues of EU criminal law and civil rights. Additionally, C-EHRN is pushing for MEPs to ensure that civil society is involved in drug-related hearings, and funded to conduct health- and harm reduction-based drug policy projects which have been de-prioritised over the past few years.

When asked how to ensure politicians stay accountable to their Manifesto commitments, Clement was straight-forward.

“Call us, email us, name & shame us when we don’t react and worse don’t deliver,” he said. “Politicians serve at the pleasure of their constituents so it is up to the constituents to threaten our seats if we don’t keep our word.”

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