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EU: In Europe, Trend Is Toward Softer Policies On Drug Use

Europe is famously home to a country with one of the world's most liberal attitudes to drugs -- the Netherlands. But in recent years, other European countries have been softening their drug policies, too. Increasingly, they're moving away from the outright prohibition of drugs and the punishment of drug users. Instead, the focus is now on reducing harm to addicts and treating addiction as an illness, not a crime.

Prague, 24 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When Jeff Ditchfield opened his so-called "medicinal cannabis center" in Wales last September, the police were waiting at the door, and he was arrested for marijuana possession.

But a jury later cleared him of supplying cannabis to help ease the pain of those who are sick with cancer and other illnesses. Ditchfield now says he has a good relationship with local police officers.

"They often pop in for a cup of coffee, and we always have a chat when they're walking past. We have a very good relationship. I think they realize there are more important priorities for themselves than a few sick people being helped with cannabis," Ditchfield says.
Other programs include "consumption rooms," where addicts can go to inject drugs. And there are even experimental schemes to distribute heroin.

Ditchfield appears to be benefiting from what he says is a change in attitude to soft drugs in Britain.

Though cannabis is still illegal, police in England and Wales are increasingly taking a softer line on possession and making fewer arrests.

That's because the drug was downgraded earlier this year to "Class C' -- judged the least harmful of three categories of drugs. By contrast, heroin is a "Class A" drug and amphetamines are "Class B."

It's just the latest example of what experts say is a Europe-wide shift toward more lenient drug policies -- coupled with an increased crackdown on trafficking.

Danilo Ballotta is a policy adviser to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon.

"There is a certain trend that we can see in all countries, in both [giving] more attention to harm reduction and having a different approach to drug use. [With] soft drugs, there is an approach to not criminalize the consumption of illicit drugs and to apply administrative sanctions [instead], and [with hard drugs] there is a tendency those who are addicted, and firstly try to minimize the risks that they create to themselves and to the society," Ballotta says.

Another recent example is Portugal, which three years ago decriminalized the possession and use of all drugs.

Experts say several factors have prompted the rethink in Europe.

Chief among them are the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the explosion in recreational drug use -- and the realization it's better to keep both categories of drug user out of jail.

Ballotta says, "If you put someone in jail who is heavily addicted or maybe has HIV or other infectious diseases, countries have realized that this is highly ineffective. It doesn't reduce the consumption, because in jail people continue to use drugs, and they are 'bombs' because they can spread their infections. So, the idea that prisons are not the best way -- actually they are one of the worst ways if you want to cure addiction -- [has] changed a bit the attitude of policymakers."

So instead of punishment, the focus is increasingly now on reducing harm to addicts and treating addiction as an illness, not a crime.

Syringe exchange programs are one common component of such "harm reduction" policies.

Another that has become more popular in Europe is substitution treatment, where addicts are given methadone to wean them off heroin. Methadone is a synthetic narcotic drug with milder withdrawal symptoms.

Other programs include "consumption rooms," where addicts can go to inject drugs. And there are even experimental schemes to distribute heroin.

But such programs are not without controversy -- and Europe is increasingly finding itself at odds with the United Nations drug control agencies.

The International Narcotics Control Board warned this year that while harm reduction measures might help individuals, they might have "far-reaching negative consequences" at national and international levels.

And it said drug injection rooms violate international drug control conventions and are a source of "grave concern."

Brice de Ruyver is an expert on European drug policies at Belgium's Ghent University.

He says the UN drug control bodies are to a great extent influenced by the United States, which is strongly prohibitionist.

"UN policy and UN agencies dealing with drug issues are under serious pressure of the major donors, and it's clear that there the U.S. plays an important role. Officially, the UN agencies will stay on their prohibition viewpoint, and they will stick at that, and officially they are a little bit blind to certain realities which are going on in the different national states," de Ruyver says.

The recent changes in practice, particularly in Europe, have prompted debate about whether there should be reform of the main international conventions on drugs -- the most recent of which is from 1988.

But Ballotta says opinion is too polarized and the debate "too emotional" for that to happen anytime soon.