Drug Policy Harmonization and the European Union

Drugs and Alcohol Today

ISSN: 1745-9265

Article publication date: 16 September 2011

Issue publication date: 16 September 2011



Klein, A. (2011), "Drug Policy Harmonization and the European Union", Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp. 163-164. https://doi.org/10.1108/dat.2011.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

With the publication of this book, we have a long overdue overview of recent developments in European approaches to drug policy, and the attempts to harmonize and coordinate such efforts within the context of the European Union. Drugs appear as a policy issue in the different areas of European policy making known (until the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009) as the three pillars: economic, social and environmental policies, security and foreign policy and justice and home affairs. Yet, though there is plenty of concern, particularly since the free movement of goods and people in the Schengen area has facilitated the flow of illicit substances across the Union, no European policy has as yet been agreed upon. Chatwin sketches the history of European attempts to formulate a collective response and the role of different bodies, such as the aptly named Horizontal Drugs Group, Europol and the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction. so far, national governments have resisted attempts to move beyond law enforcement cooperation and the sharing of data as drug control remains one area where policy differences are considerable. To underline both the difference of control regime, but the philosophy and direction of travel, case studies are provided for Sweden, The Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal.

The famous Dutch model allowing for the quasi legal access to cannabis provides the dual attempt of first separating different drug markets for soft and hard drugs, and to normalize and de‐stigmatize drug users. An interesting observation is how in the early 1970s Dutch police were dealing harshly with cannabis uses, while opiate and cocaine were considered medical problems and attracted little law enforcement interest. In Sweden, on the other hand the ideal is of a drug free society, with drugs regarded as an external threat and a moral challenge to Swedish society. While these countries provide the two extreme poles, Denmark is included, because it moved from a liberal towards a repressive policy, and Portugal, by contrast, from a repressive to a liberal position. The Portuguese model has received much attention for contributing to reducing the transmission of infection diseases and prison populations, as readers of DAAT will know (Moreira et al., 2007, p. 2). Denmark by contrast, had for years pursued a laissez faire approach, involving the quasi toleration of cannabis markets in “free city” of Christiana outside of Copenhagen. The consequences of the conservative government's decision to crack down on these markets, with the inevitable displacement effect, the emergence of organised crime and particularly biker gangs, have also been covered in this journal (Asmussen Frank, 2008, p. 2).

One emerging constant is the role of the police in promoting repressive approaches particularly in Scandinavia. Successive legislation has extended both funding provisions and the powers of police officers, who in Sweden have the authority to take compulsory urine/blood samples of anyone suspected of having taking drugs.

While policies differ, they are based on share principles and common understandings. No country has legalised or approved the use of non‐traditional substances, and in northern Europe particularly, there is a history of strong temperance movements as a foundation for subsequent drug control. It is these concerns for public health, coupled with the rising role of the state, the clamour by civil society organisations and religious groups that provide the context in which policy is now being discussed. But as Chatwin illustrates with ample use of statistical evidence from the EMCDDA, most European countries are facing a very similar issues. Drug use is entrenched among a rising proportion of the population and unlikely to disappear in the near future. Focus on the stabilisation of cannabis prevalence in Western Europe has masked rapid rises in Eastern Europe as well as the sharp increase in stimulant use. The author herself advocates the benefits of closer cooperation albeit along the lines of “multi‐level governance” which involves the exchange of good practice, wider citizen participation and wider decision making by sub‐national authorities like cities. She remains, however, cautious about the prospects of harmonization any time soon.

Discussing the jealousy of national governments in keeping control of a policy field and the attempts by EC bureaucracies to extend their influence, the book throws an interesting sidelight on the EU and European integration. There is concern among “sceptics” in all governments that harmonized law on any aspect of drug control may then raise the need for increasing EU powers in other areas of criminal law. Once the powers have been accumulated by Brussels they will “spill over into other policy areas boosting its supranational power status and further eroding national sovereignty.” Decisions on drug policy in the EU, we therefore infer, are not taken on the technical grounds or with the objective of maximising citizen health, but in keeping with ideological positions.

The book leads up to the present and provides a solid foundation for any student of drugs policy in the EU. While the focus on case study does by necessity occludes events in parts of the union, the thematic discussion of policy at EU and national level is insightful. Historical background information on post war negotiations leading to the establishment of the EC, the provisions of the different treaties, and the functions of different EU institutions and agencies is informative. While the central thrust of the argument, that harmonized policy is desirable, remains open to discussion, the book fills a gap in the literature on drug policy in the EU and provides a valuable introduction to EU drug policy.

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