Investigative story on EU drug policy

While studying in Denmark, our class took a study tour to Brussels to investigate policy within the European Union. Here is my story.

EU attempts to reach common ground on drug policy

Denmark struggles with Sweden drug addicts crossing the border.


by Bridget Honan and Leonie Lohwasser.

It smells like urine and vomit. Two men crouching behind an oversized umbrella burn crack on an dirty, rusty teaspoon. A filthy, wrinkly hand opens to show different coloured pills – methadon, sleeping pills, “downer”, amphetamines. This is daily life on Istedgade in Copenhagen. The city tries to tackle the drugs and despair with safe injection rooms and free methadon, a substitute for heroin. But as Sweden has taken a zero tolerance approach to drugs, addicts are crossing the border to seek refuge in Copenhagen. This immigration of addicts is just one part of Europe’s battle with conflicting drug policies. The Schengen agreement has opened the gates not only to a free trade of goods but also to uncomfortable issues like drugs.

With freedom of movement drugs have become a problem of the European Union rather than a member state problem. But with no concrete legislative power, the EU is struggling to provide action on a rising drug problem, and member states are suffering for it.

The European Commission’s Directorate General for Justice produced the Drug Action Plan for 2009- 2012. It’s main aim was to “significantly reduce the prevalence of drug use among the population and to reduce the social and health damage caused by the use of and trade in illicit drugs”.

However, there is a problem with consistency between member states. While one country might make drugs a political priority, a country with less funding for social health may fail to act.Faye Watson, the Secretary General for the NGO Europe Against Drugs believes there is a lack of common goals between member states.

Different member states have conflicting drug policies

“The problem is that you still have different rates, different problems in all countries showing that each country isn’t taking

the same measures on their national policies.”

“The UK is starting to see a decline [in drug use] where as in the Czech Republic you can see drug rates going up. So there’s still huge problems despite slight convergence.”

The Drug Action Plan for 2009-2012 suggested more integration is need in drug policies across Europe. The plan says, “the adoption of the Strategy in itself gave a clear signal that political concern about drugs across the European Union transcends the differences in approach that exist among Member States.”

According to the European Commission, the “evaluation also shows that Member States’ drug policies are converging and that there is a shift towards underpinning national policies with action plans.”

But with no overarching enforceable legislation, one country can adopt measures to tackle drugs, but if neighbouring countries have different laws, it’s difficult to put them in place.

“We do have European rules, but the problem is they’re not effectively enforced,” said Natasha Bertaud,press officer for Justice,Fundamental Rights and Citizenship in the European Commission.

“The European member states read these reports and rubbed their shoulders and that was it,” said the co-ordinator of ENCOD (European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies) Joep Oomen.

“By the time they reach an agreement about what they’re going to do, they’re already walking 5 years behind citizens and how you communicate with them. Especially young people.”


Safe syringe disposal units in Copenhagen, Denmark.


Unequal policy between neighbouring countries causes drug tourism.

The consequences of unequal drug policy are best demonstrated through the Netherlands, which previously had a liberal attitude towards cannabis. Consumers could easily purchase the drug over the counter at cannabis coffee shops, which led to a huge amount of “drug tourists” coming from less liberal countries all over Europe.

The Netherlands has since had to implement a ban on foreigners entering cannabis cafes, where customers must now provide evidence of Dutch residency.

“If there is an outlet in a foreign country, this hides the problem in your own country. It makes it difficult for authorities to recognize it and find a common solution.The Dutch want to find a definitive solution but they need the co-operation of the Belgians and the Germans,” said Joep Oomen.

European Union plans to become more integrated in social policy areas.

But Ms. Bertaud from the European Commission is sure that the EU has the ability to move towards a more compounded approach.

“We’re already integrated quite a lot on the economic side, and I think that maybe needs to be matched on the social side.”

“If one drug is banned in one member state but legal in three others, it’s obviously not going to be an effective policy.”

Ms. Bertaud mentions as an example, Vice President Vivian Reding’s proposal to introduce legislation in 2013 tackling psychoactives. Psychoactive substances are substances not yet legislated against which mimic the effects of banned drugs.The legislation would include a directive banning psychoactive substances, or legal highs, which would result in actual union law.

Lisbon treaty gives the EU power to institute legislation outside of EU jurisdiction

The legal basis for the EU to make legislative, drug policy is the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty placed the third pillar of Justice and Harmonization under community method, meaning the committee now has a legal standing to introduce legislation in the EU like drug policy.

There is also article 114 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union which states the European Parliament may “establish minimum rules concerning the definition of criminal offences and sanctions in the areas of particularly serious crime with a cross-border dimension resulting from the nature or impact of such offences or from a special need to combat them on a common basis.”

There is the possibility of criminal sanctions against states which do not comply, which is the first step towards a unified Europe.

But even after this psychoactive legislation is introduced, the rest of the drug problem is relying on voluntary compliance with the Drug Action Plan.

Joep Oomen believes it’s nothing but symbolic policy making.

“They could write above these reports and action plans, ‘we know it isn’t working, but we continue on anyway.’”


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