Duncan Scott of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform examines European Commission's recent statement on drug policy in this guest post.
Here's a statement from a press release from the European Commission (emphasis mine):
The Commission is considering various ways to make the EU rules more effective, such as alternative options to criminal sanctions, new ways of monitoring substances that cause concern, and aligning drugs control measures with those for food and product safety. In the autumn, the Commission will present a series of options in this respect.These words are music to this drug policy reformer's ears. What is being actively considered here is a legal framework for the supply of new recreational drugs.
The problem of 'legal highs' is growing, with 115 new substances being identified in the EU over the last 5 years. Our hopeless drug laws can't keep up with criminalising more and more chemical compounds at an ever increasing rate. The drugs are typically sold as 'not for human consumption', even though they are produced with human consumption in mind. Clearly the current legislation is farcical.
No one denies that drugs can be dangerous, and each drug brings its own unique set of challenges for the health of the user and the wider effect on society. When talking of 'food safety' regulations, I hope the EC mean tighter rules than those covering, say, tinned tomatoes. The regulations should be modelled on those covering alcohol and tobacco as a bare minimum, to reflect the dangers of a drug.
The EC report also fails to consider what is causing the big increase in new pschoactive substances entering the market. The demand for legal highs is created by the illegality of more 'traditional' recreational drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine. The scientific understanding of traditional drugs is also stronger, at least when compared to a brand new 'legal highs'. We therefore could have a situation where there is a proper legal framework for supplying less well understood recreational drugs, whilst well-known drugs remain criminalised. It would be more successful if legislation were designed to fit around the best understood recreational drugs.
If the EC successfully produces legal high supply regulations, I would expect that some of the first drugs to make use of the regulations will see a reasonable number of users, which could steal the recreational drug market away from both criminal dealers and the unregulated 'legal high' traders.
It is also interesting to note the language used by the EC in its press release. It promotes a non-criminal justice approach with the familiar rhetoric of populist drug policy: "tougher action", "protect our children", "rules must be strengthened", "make sure young people do not fall into the trap" etc. The communications staff at the EC may well have figured that the "tough" rhetoric will be needed to sell what is actually a pragmatic policy approach which faces up to the reality of a demand for recreational drugs. As long as the legislative outcomes are to be a success, I'm happy for the politicians to sell it to the press and public however they can.
Finally, it must be said that there's a long way to go with this yet. This is a highly emotive topic, and the EC has many political hurdles to jump. I can imagine the Daily Mail having kittens over this - EU SECRET PLOT TO PEDAL KILLER DRUGS TO OUR CHILDREN seems an inevitability. Nevertheless, we are seeing pragmatic, non-dogmatic drug policy being actively considered by governments at all levels. Reformers are slowly winning the War on Drugs Policy.
Read Duncan Stott's regular blog here