Meeting in Strasbourg on December 15, a plenary session of the European Parliament approved a report on the new European Union (EU) drug strategy that bluntly calls existing EU policy "a failure" and proposes fundamental changes in European drug policy. While the parliament's action is not binding on the Council of Europe, the executive branch of the EU, European drug reformers told DRCNet passage of the resolution would help set the tone for discussions scheduled for early next year that will determine European drug policy for the next five years.
The "Catania Report," named after Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Giusto Catania, who submitted it for consideration by the parliament, calls for the adoption of harm reduction as a "crucial element in drug policies;" increased research on the beneficial uses of cannabis, coca, and opium; and institutional support for the involvement of civil society in the formulation of EU drug policy, among other things.
"Parliamentary approval of the report sends a very clear message to the European authorities and citizens that Europe is at a turning point in its approach to the global drug issue," said Joep Oomen, spokesman for the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (http://www.encod.org), a drug reform umbrella group that has been working to make progress in the institutions of the EU. "A political dilemma can be solved," he told DRCNet. "For the first time in history, a parliament of such high reputation as the EP has expressed the need to end conventional thinking about drugs. We are close to the first major decision to stop the war on drugs."
The vote was close, with the report passing by a slender margin of 286 to 271. "This tight margin suggests that there has been quite some discussion going on within the political groups inside the EP," said Oomen. "It appears that some members of traditionally conservative groups like the Christian Democratic European People's Party have voted in favor of the report. We spoke to some members, especially from the Eastern European countries, and it seemed they were very grateful to see the doubts they have expressed about the official drug policy confirmed in the report."
The vote reflected regional differences, Oomen said. "The division over prohibition in Europe is not only ideological but geographic. While the East Europeans appear open to new solutions, the Scandinavian representatives have been quite active in blocking any discussion on alternatives to prohibition, but their opposition is losing more and more credibility every day," he explained.
MEP Catania thanked ENCOD for its help in pressing for passage of the report. "Thanks to you all and the support you gave us," he wrote in a message to ENCOD. "We are very happy with the result. Please tell to all the members of the network that we are grateful for this cooperation."
Passage of the Catania Report was cheered by MEP Marco Pannella of the Transnational Radical Party (http://www.radicalparty.org), who offered several amendments strengthening the report. "This was the first time that the European Parliament voiced its concerns on current drug polices in such a clear and precise manner," he said in a statement after the vote. "After the failures documented by the European Monitoring Center on Drugs (http://www.emcdda.org), now it is up to the European Commission to take into account the political views expressed by the EP in view of defining the 2005-2012 European strategy on drugs."
But that is by no means a done deal. In fact, two days after the EP approved the Catania Report, the European Council of Ministers voted to adopt the new drug strategy without taking into account its recommendations.
"We expected that to happen," said Oomen. "But the approval of the report means that the European Parliament can now put pressure on the European Commission, the executive power in the EU, to apply the recommendations in the concrete application of this strategy."
In order to help apply that pressure, ENCOD has presented a proposal to the European Commission to jointly organize a large conference involving authorities, parliamentarians and civil society representatives from the 25 EU member states before April, when the commission has to present its Drug Action Plan as part of the new EU Drug Strategy, in order to discuss the course of EU drug policies in the coming four years. But EU bureaucrats are not playing along, Oomen said.
In a quick response to the proposal, Carel Edwards, head of the EU's Anti-Drug Policy Coordination unit, praised the dialogue that will start next year, but added, "I foresee, without committing myself, that we can do this in the second half of the year."
"This response shows how the bureaucrats play the game," said Oomen. "The second half of the year is too late for this dialogue to have any meaning for the new Drug Action Plan. If the commission does not organize a dialogue now, it is because they lack the will to do it, and it is up to the European Parliament to follow up on this." The ENCOD steering committee is discussing ways of putting pressure on the commission to act quickly, Oomen added.
The reform umbrella group is also considering a medium-term plan to keep the pressure on. "We should consider the EP report as the guideline for future policies of the European Commission," Oomen said. "Of course this is not the case yet, but we should prepare ourselves for the day it is and it is coming closer. Our suggestion would be that ENCOD members start preparing a program of activities for the next three years involving either information, research, harm reduction or peer support activities which could be part of a coordinated work program on a European level." ENCOD will request funding from the European Commission to make its presence at the commission permanent, he added.
While ENCOD has spent years mastering the intricacies of the EU bureaucracy, it has not been all just poring over musty documents and mastering parliamentary minutiae. The group has sponsored demonstrations and forums, and in the run-up to the Strasbourg vote, MEPs were treated to an ENCOD information stand in the parliament headquarters. In addition to learning more about progressive drug policies, MEPs were also given the chance to drink coca tea made available through the joint efforts of ENCOD and the Andean Council of Coca Producers. The tea was part of an effort to promote the beneficial uses of plants currently illegal under United Nations anti-drug conventions.
The joint presentation is representative of ongoing efforts to strengthen relations between European and Latin American reformers. At Strasbourg, more steps in that direction took place. MEP Alain Lipietz, head of the EP's delegation for relations with the Andean countries, declared that Europe "needs to change its policies concerning traditional cultivation of plants like the coca leaf, in order to stop the repression that these generate not only against the people involved, but also against the environment, affected by the violent way in which this cultivation is approached today -- fumigations, forced eradication, militarization."
And in a meeting with Bolivian parliamentarian Dionisio Nuñez, who participated in the ENCOD delegation in Strasbourg, Lipietz said he will start official conversations between the EP and the Latin American Parliament to seeks progress in the EU process toward the decriminalization of commercial coca products in Europe. The Latin American Parliament will be in Lima in May.
While American drug reformers are still trying to find a place at the table, the Europeans are helping to fundamentally reshape continental drug policy. Maybe we in the New World still have something to learn from Old Europe.
The read the Catania Report online, click here.