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Europe: Drugs -- Adapting To New Realities (Part 1)

Drugs -- both legal and illegal -- have accompanied humans since the beginning of civilization. But approaches on how to deal with them today continue to differ. Many EU states are in the process of changing their drug policies and there is now a clear trend toward greater emphasis on education and treatment, rather than repression. In Eastern Europe, the rapid opening of borders accompanied by economic hardship adds a double challenge to drafting effective drug policies. In the first part of a five-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten examines the issues and the reality of drugs in both Western and Eastern Europe, how policies have changed and what lessons can be learned.

Prague, 27 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As an increasing segment of Europe's population experiments with different types of drugs, European governments are also experimenting with different drug policies. Within the 15-nation European Union, to cite an important example, drug laws -- unlike other statutes -- are not subject to harmonization.

Statistically, in each EU member, tobacco and alcohol kill thousands more people each year than do illicit drugs. But policymakers are nonetheless worried by the opening of new trade routes -- bringing with it international organized crime -- the availability of new narcotics, as well as the emergence of new diseases that can be spread by drug users such as AIDS and hepatitis. In addition, the disproportionate toll drug abuse takes on young people has parents turning to politicians for solutions.

The trends are clear. According to the EU's European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, since the mid-1980s, illicit drug use of all types has increased across Europe, despite the fact that arrests for the sale and possession of drugs are also sharply up. Law-enforcement officials estimate that despite the best efforts of police, only 10 to 30 percent of illicit drug shipments are ever interdicted.

The 10-year period from 1985 to 1995 also saw increases in the numbers of drug-related deaths in most European countries.

It was the emergence of diseases such as AIDS and HIV, which can be transmitted by shared needles among intravenous drug users, that prompted many European countries to take a new look at their drug policies. That trend has accelerated and since the mid-1990s, several states have adopted new policies focused more on treatment and prevention rather than interdiction and prosecution. Alexis Goosdeel, a drug policy expert at the EU's monitoring center, explains:

"In the last couple of years, you've had four or six [EU] member-states who have drawn up national strategies on drugs. If you take, for instance, the Spanish one, the strategy of the United Kingdom and recently the Portuguese national policy, they are more well-balanced national strategies than before. This means that before it was mainly addressing some legal enforcement needs and issues, in order to reduce the supply of drugs. Now we know -- it is an observation we can make almost everywhere -- that if you do and promote only the fight against drugs, it is not effective and a therefore a lot of member-states have balanced their strategies."

Some of those policies have already borne fruit. In the case of HIV transmission rates, the establishment of needle exchange programs for addicts has been a clear success, preventing the further spread of the disease. Where those programs are absent, as in many East European states, HIV incidence continues to rise sharply. In Russia, for example, where the UN's World Health Organization, or WHO, reports that HIV's spread is mostly driven by intravenous drug users, the first HIV cases among addicts were only noticed in 1996, in the port of Kaliningrad. In just four years, the epidemic has spread to over 30 cities. The WHO now estimates that 130,000 people in Russia are infected with the disease.

The difficulty is that in other areas, drawing a direct correlation between the rate of drug use and specific prevention or enforcement programs is nearly impossible. In other words, it is hard to measure the individual effectiveness of different programs on influencing people to avoid or quit drugs. This has allowed politicians to use the drug issue to advance their own goals. Leif Lenke, a Swedish expert on drug policy, says this is an unfortunate trend.

"When you find this kind of politicization of drug policy, you have difficulty seeing whether it's a question of effectiveness that you ask for -- or if it's a question of party political rhetoric."

The incidence of drug use depends on many factors -- among them, as Sweden discovered when it went through an economic downturn in the 1980s, the rate of youth unemployment. This is a particular problem in much of Eastern Europe. Another important factor is whether or not a country lies on a specific drug route, such as the so-called Silk Route from Central Asia or the Balkan Route, which winds from Turkey through Central Europe.

Because of each country's specific conditions, EU drug monitor Goosdeel says the key to at least partial success is to educate people and, at the level of government, to maintain flexible policies that are periodically revised. He advises countries to adapt specific programs that have worked in other states, but says that adopting a one-size-fits-all policy is as ineffective as the "just say no to drugs" approach still favored by some social conservatives.

"I think what is important is to try to explore. What are the things which were wrong? Or maybe things were right but the situation has changed? And then to see, from what we have learned from the experience, how could we redefine our objectives for the next four years, for instance?"

The EU monitoring group notes in its annual report on drugs in Europe that new substances continue to appear on the market. That's why it is important to stay on top of trends, change policies when needed and above all, remain educated. Goosdeel, says that in his personal opinion, speaking as a parent, it is all quite basic.

"I think that we need to learn to live in a world with drugs -- whatever the substance. And we know that with the prodigies of chemistry, there are so many new things. I think that what we need to do is, first, to be able to detect the new trends, to detect the new substances because some of them can be lethal substances, or very toxic substances; this is first. Second, what's required is that we need to teach ourselves and our children to live in such a world. I mean, the day my daughter is going to a party, what will I do? Will I stay together with her during the whole party? I don't think it is feasible."

In the next four features in this series, we will examine how three European countries have adapted their national drug strategies: First, the Netherlands, which was a pioneer of a more liberal approach to drugs. Then Sweden, which represents the opposite end of the spectrum in Europe. And, finally, the Czech Republic, which like its post-Communist neighbors, is struggling to devise an effective policy to deal with this new problem.