Read original article in Der Standard
Austria has always had a unique role in international drug policy, being the host and the defender of the multilateral organizations that define drug control measures. This role is further enhanced as the country assumes the EU Council Presidency for the next six months, and thus bears the responsibility for coordinating and strengthening a single EU voice on this issue.
This is particularly important in light of the United Nations’ high-level meeting in March 2019 on drug policy, when the international community will convene in Vienna to review how every country has fought drugs in the past ten years, to examine what has worked and what has been a failure. With the steadily increasing prevalence of drug use, production and trafficking, we know that the international drug control system has failed to achieve any of its objectives. Many governments around the world know it as well, and are starting to introduce different drug policies, including the decriminalization of drug consumption, the provision of maintenance therapies to those heavily dependent on drugs, and as far as legally regulating some substances such as in Uruguay and Canada.
The meeting next March is a major milestone and offers a unique opportunity to change course. Rarely do the UN member states discuss in any depth the flaws of prohibition – not only its failure to curb supply and demand, but also its negative consequences on public health such as HIV and hepatitis transmission, on the lack of enjoyment of human rights due to police abuse and traffickers’ violence, and on the rule of law, with regard to the arbitrary nature of drug interventions, which mainly target the already vulnerable communities.
This approach to drug control, focusing on law-enforcement efforts and choosing to forget its collateral damages, has resulted in a situation where the liabilities of drug policies are people, who lose their lives their dignity and their future because they engaged in an act that bears no violence or risk to others, which is the act of consuming an illegal drug. A person using illegal drugs faces the same health threats as a person using alcohol or tobacco; the legal, social and professional risks are, however, worlds apart, because of the unjustified criminalization of people who use drugs.
Moreover, this is not how we, Europeans, think, design or implement public policies. Since the end of the war, European countries have always thought their policies in terms of people, addressing the vulnerabilities of their populations, and ensuring the best approaches to minimize any unintended consequences. With atomic energy or chemicals, we have put in place tough regulations and protocols to mitigate the harms, while enjoying the benefits. On drugs, we behave completely differently. We lose reason to emotion, believing that a firm stance on drugs allows us to scare or deter criminals. The reality is that we destroy the lives of the poorest and the most vulnerable, as they are the ones arrested for drug use or possession, or are the ones who, out of economic need, join the lowest ranks of the black market.
Nevertheless, we, Europeans, have found ways to nuance the negative consequences of punitive drug policies. We provided safe consumption spaces and lifelong maintenance therapies to people who use and inject drugs, we lowered the sentences for drug use, and we introduced proportionate sentences for drug dealing. Then why are we so shy to share these successes with the world? Why do we side internationally with those who engage in gross human rights violations in the name of drug control? Why do we think that humane drug policies are weak instead of them being smart?
This is where Austria can change the game and introduce new rules. Indeed, responding to illegal drugs now requires a much broader perspective than just criminal justice considerations. Issues of public health, rule of law, human rights, education, poverty eradication, sustainable development and women’s rights must all be considered for policies to be effective in the future. This is even more important as there is now an urgent need for the EU to support better drug policies in its neighboring regions, which bear the burden of a flow of young refugees coming into Europe.
The main hope is that the EU countries listen to those who, among them have had the best experiences: from Portugal and Czechia on the criminal justice system, from Luxembourg and the Netherlands on a public health approach, and from Croatia and Germany on the medical use of illegal substances. Such an exchange at the EU Council level will allow for Europe to stand its ground on people-centered approaches and seek an end to the harassment of people who use drugs. I have no doubt that Austria is up to this monumental task.