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Europe: Drug Use Increasing, Says EU Report

Prague, 10 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The first authoritative report on the use of drugs in the European Union has just been issued -- and its findings are not reassuring to those who like to believe the relatively prosperous Union is exempt from an increasingly worldwide problem, or to those who think tough government policies will reduce drug consumption. The report's conclusions effectively refute both widely held notions.

The report is the first annual assessment by the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Addiction, a group of experts established by the EU three years ago to examine usage among its 370 million citizens.

Presenting its conclusions Tuesday at the Union's headquarters in Brussels, Center Director Georges Estievenart stressed that "there's very little relation between the estimated level of addiction and different (national) policies." The report presents strong evidence of the increasing consumption of so-called hard and soft drugs in the EU.

Chief among the hard drugs consumed in all 15 EU member states is heroin. Up to one million Union citizens -- one percent of the adult population -- has regularly consumed heroin, and half those users are now addicted to the drug. That represents half of the estimated level of addiction in the United States (population: about 270 million), the largest single-country consumer of heroin and other drugs.

The report also notes that heroin usage in the EU seemed to be declining slightly in big cities but rising sharply in smaller cities and towns. France is said to have the highest national rate of heroin addiction -- 280 for every 100,000 inhabitants.

Use of cocaine in the EU is relatively rare, the report says, but its use is increasing in most member states. So is smoking of the cocaine-based drug crack, which the report says is rapidly emerging as a "significant problem" among urban marginal groups -- as it has been for years in the United States. Consumption of amphetamines and synthetic "designer" drugs such as ecstasy is growing even more rapidly, particularly in Britain and the EU's Nordic members -- Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

Overall, cannabis -- in the form of marijuana or hashish -- is by far the drug of preference in the EU, as it is in the United States. Cannabis' acknowledged usage in member states ranges from five percent of the population in Belgium, Finland and Sweden, through 16 percent in France, German, Spain and Britain, to 30 percent in Denmark.

Considered a soft or "recreational" drug, cannabis is consumed largely "as a relaxant in the framework of leisure -- or even professional -- activities." Among young people of 15 or 16 years old, 5 percent in Finland, Greece, Portugal and Sweden say they have consumed cannabis in the past year, compared to 12 percent in France, 15 in Belgium, 19 in Spain, 20 in the Netherlands and 30 percent in Britain. The report estimates that, despite its widespread usage, the consumption of cannabis has far fewer social and health consequences for the overall population than heroin or other hard drugs.

Using the report's conclusions, the EU's Commissioner for Consumer Policy yesterday called for the decriminalization of certain drugs.

In an interview published in the France mass-circulation daily "Le Parisien," Commissioner Emma Bonino of Italy argued that banning drugs led only to black-market dealing and that legalizing them, as has the Netherlands for years, would reduce drug-related crime.

"Dutch legislation has produced excellent result: less crime, less delinquency and far fewer people infected with AIDS than elsewhere in Europe," she said.

These are familiar arguments on behalf on decriminalization. So are the arguments for keeping all drugs illegal. They maintain, among other things, that the distinction between hard and soft drugs is a false one and that use of one will often lead to use of the other.

French President Jacques Chirac is now the EU's most forceful official proponent of continuing criminalization of all drugs. Chirac has publicly castigated the Netherlands, saying that Dutch tolerance of cannabis has infected neighboring countries, including his own. But the EU Center's report says that most drugs consumed in France come through the country's southern, not northern, border.