Will EU drug policymaking become reactionary?
(This is part 1 out of 2 of a series of posts on the future of EU drug policy. You can read part 2 here. )
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 concerning shift towards a more repressive and securitised approach to drug policy, similar to the shift occurring across Europe. As the far-right expands its influence across Europe, what sort of future will the EU create for drug policy within this shift?
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 political 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 reduced in size and transferred from the Commission’s Justice Department to Migration and Home Affairs (also known as DG Home). 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 hadn’t 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 put the threat of drugs on an equal footing to child abuse and weapons trafficking.
This attempt to reinvent EU drug policy ultimately failed, in part thanks to a forceful response by European civil society, and subsequent pushback 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 seems like another attempt at this.
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”. The first proposal was 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 drug war rhetoric: there were plenty of mentions of gangs, organised crime and various other existential threats to Europe.
Thanks to interventions by the European Parliament and various Member States, the EU Drug Agency’s final text is more measured, continuing to prioritise the public health aspects 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 co-operation with civil society. But the devil will be in the detail. While the Drug Agency had a considerable budget increase, it’s unclear how much will be directed at law enforcement 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 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?
The rising far-right threat
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 powerbrokers in the EU. It is hard to imagine a future EU where policymakers are not from these parties, or seriously influenced by them and their ideological stances.
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’, along with a de-prioritisation of harm reduction, treatment and other health and social support.
If this trend develops further, 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, with little prospects for change.
To confront this rightward tilt, the drug policy reform movement and its allies need to strengthen their coalition, particularly in Brussels. I will offer a few thoughts on how to articulate this coalition in part 2 of this series.