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Let’s finally kick the habit: governance of addictions in Europe

More than a century ago, on 23 January 1912, the first international convention on drug control was signed in The Hague. A century later, despite efforts made at all levels and vast quantities of evidence, our societies still struggle to deal effectively with addictive substances and behaviours. Reaching a global consensus has proved harder than kicking the worst drug-taking habit.

Nonetheless, the meeting of the Global Commission on Drug Policy held on 9 September 2014 in New York might be a turning point. During the meeting, a ground-breaking report entitled “Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work” was presented. The report calls for an end to criminalization policies, and lays the foundation for a health-oriented approach to tackling drugs.

With the support of evidence-based studies on drugs and addiction, the commission report places the well-being of society at the centre of the debate, a trend that many European countries are already pursuing. Based on a recent study of the models for managing addictions in Europe, it is clear that European nations are increasingly decriminalizing drug use and possession, while implementing harm reduction policies. Intriguingly, these two measures tend to go hand in hand, and most countries with innovative harm reduction policies — such as providing injection rooms for addicts — have also decriminalized the use and possession of illicit drugs.

Although the Global Commission on Drug Policy only takes illicit drugs into account, it is worth mentioning developments in the regulation of legal drugs (alcohol and tobacco) in Europe. This regulative perspective includes evidence-based measures related to marketing, packaging, production, distribution, age limits, taxes, and advertising. In Europe, it can be seen how those countries with strict regulations on alcohol and tobacco have been able to reduce the consumption and the associated harm.

Cannabis coffee shop in the city center of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Cannabis coffee shop in the city center of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, no European country has yet embraced a decriminalization and harm reduction approach accompanied with a regulative perspective on legal substances. Such a comprehensive approach would fully enhance the well-being of everybody. Historical paths and long-term problems with specific substances exert an unfortunate influence on policy-makers: who tend to focus either on legal or illicit substances. Nonetheless, it is time to overcome these taboos and provide comprehensive approaches that include the three main policy trends for tackling addiction: decriminalization, harm reduction, and regulation.

The effects of history and geopolitics entail that many European countries still concentrate efforts on security and implement policies that criminalize people with drug-addiction problems. These countries focus on reducing the supply of illicit substances, and pay less attention to the demand side, which can be tackled by decriminalizing drugs, boosting harm reduction measures, and strengthening the prevention and treatment of addiction. Nonetheless, the European Union is shaping the policies of the countries that criminalize addictions problems and these member states are increasingly taking into account the well-being of society in their policy-making process. The next step, and the most difficult one, is to translate the good intentions that these countries are starting to introduce in their strategies into real actions.

The report published by the Global Commission on Drug Policy is good news and an important step towards a new model that places the well-being of society at the centre of the debate on addictions. However, governments must not underestimate the difficulties involved in translating this discourse into reality. As has been seen in Europe, most nations with health-oriented approaches also enjoy the support and involvement of regional governments, as well as businesses and charities. The involvement of key stakeholders is critical in the decision-making, implementation, and evaluation processes.

Governments can no longer act unilaterally; instead, to kick the drug-taking habit they must encourage the participation of stakeholders, because without their support it will be impossible to achieve a policy shift towards the well-being of society. In this decentralized and multi-level organizational structure, the public sector should have a leading role in determining the strategy of the public policy for addictions. Although the public sector has to encourage the participation of stakeholders, it has to avoid co-optation by both industry and NGOs. In short, the complexity of addiction requires a comprehensive solution, with multiple layers and actors involved. Despite these complexities, there is an increasing agreement between European countries and the international community on the ultimate goal of the governance of addictions: replace the war on drugs by the well-being of society.

Featured image: The Parliament’s hemicycle (debating chamber) during a plenary session in Strasbourg by Diliff. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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