During the last four decades, drugs and their consequences have become increasingly visible, triggering a public demand for a political response. The EU has been at the forefront of balanced policy-making on drugs, walking a fine line between repression and care. It has used a carefully balanced model combining law enforcement (notably customs control, financial tracking to end money laundering and criminal justice) and health and social services.
The current European common strategy on drugs allowed certain member states such as Portugal to become global models when they decriminalised drug use. True, populist policies still yield political gain in other member states, such as France, where such rhetoric still gained momentum this year – although it is now met with increasing skepticim, including by MPs and mayors.
This European model is now threatened, by the European Commission itself, in the wake of a stronger focus on security (both in budget and in language). The commission is currently presenting to EU member states its new common strategy on drugs, for 2021-2025. While this proposal maintains a somewhat multifold approach, it is a systemic restructuring of policy, looking at it all through the lens of security, criminalisation and law enforcement.
This shift goes beyond semantics. It would structure budgetary and policy choices within the EU, and influence the funding of drug control policy in the future. But, most importantly, it would send a message to the EU’s neighbours that aggressive law enforcement would be prioritised for EU funds sent overseas. This may have catastrophic consequences in places such as the Caribbean and the Sahel. In this last region, research shows that the connection between terrorism and drug trafficking is opportunistic; a new strategy over-relying on security would not advance the response to either drug trafficking or terrorism.
The security challenges facing the EU are hard to overestimate, with exacerbated conflicts and the rule of law and democratic rule increasingly questioned. The safety of European citizens needs strong and efficient mechanisms, and we commend the EC for its commitment. However, disconnecting law enforcement and welfare damages everyone’s safety: research and practice show that health and social systems provide people with a safety net before they fall into poverty, marginalisation and the illegal drug market — and eventually into a cycle of violence, crime, and incarceration.
The proposed strategy seems to try to put all the diverse, complex issues of poverty, radicalism, terrorism, separatism, transnational criminality and illegal drugs in the same basket, as if flexibility and multilevel interventions were not cornerstones of effective security policies.
But the main question is: why would the EU want to restructure its approach and align it with punitive policies that have failed everywhere? Why change the European model, which is widely recognised as one of the best existing practices?
Drug-free societies do not exist. But societies freed from violence, overincarceration and HIV can be built. The EU has been down that path, investing in local security services, community safety measures and the socioeconomic and cultural development of cities and rural communities. Having been in charge of health and security plans at the European, national and local levels, the members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, including myself, believe that the current approach to drugs — while not perfect — is still the most effective.
The EU owes its citizens results. The EC’s new strategy promises to use a security-centred approach to reduce drug trafficking. Let us learn from the past: this new plan is set to fail.