Drugs: Where Is Europe Going?

The new European Drugs Strategy provides a political framework for EU policies in this field and serves as a guideline for national strategies

EU drugs strategy

The EU Drugs Strategy 2021-2025 is probably the best developed EU strategy. It is balanced and comprehensive while reflecting the coherence of EU endeavours, especially at the international level. – image: Shutterstock, CC

By Lucía Goberna – On 18 December 2020, the Council of the European Union approved the European Drugs Strategy 2021-2025 (EDS) for the next five years. The EDS is a key document designed to guide the European actions in the field of illicit drugs and to serve as the basis for the EU Action Plan. Both documents will be essential to the development of national strategies and plans.

As a member of the EU Civil Society Forum on Drugs, Dianova has been closely involved in the complex process of drafting and monitoring. We consider the EDS 2021-2025 to be a comprehensive and thorough document that will help reinforce or develop essential areas in this field.

Tools: Strategies and Action Plans

Although the field of drugs does not fall within the exclusive purview of the EU, a number of legal bases allow for EU action in such related areas as public health, internal market, organized crime and judicial cooperation.

Strategies and Action Plans are considered as particularly pertinent tools because they are designed through coordinated action that is crucial in the preparation of EU drug policies. These strategies and plans do not impose legal obligations on EU member states, but rather promote a joint model that will serve to define priorities, objectives, and actions while providing evaluation systems, so that progress towards objectives can be measured. The EU drugs strategy sets out the political framework and priorities for EU’s drug policy. At the same time, an action plan will be prepared on the basis of this strategy to set out concrete measures, define the agents involved in their implementation, and provide indicators and monitoring systems.

A pioneering organization in the field of drugs

Member States and prospective candidates to the EU have utilized these documents to prepare their own national drugs strategies. The EDS and Action Plan are therefore key documents for policy development and implementation for all actors involved. They are not only a roadmap but also a reference document for advocacy work.

The first ‘European Plan to Combat Drugs’, was developed in 1990. The EU was then, with the Organization of American States, one of the pioneering organizations in the development and implementation of such strategies. Today’s documents are based on the European Drugs Strategy 2013-2020 and the Action Plan on Drugs 2017-2020.

A Complex preparation process

Among the various European institutions active in the field of drugs, the European Commission represents the interests of the EU as its executive body; the European Parliament – the EU legislative body – represents citizens; and the Council of the European Union represents the Member States of the Union. The Horizontal Working Party on Drugs (HDG) is a coordination body responsible for leading and managing the Council’s work on drugs. As such, it was responsible for approving and validating the final version of the Strategy and Action Plan on Drugs. Lastly, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, other EU agencies, and civil society organizations were also involved at different stages of the process.

Participation of civil society

In this complex framework, civil society has been organized around the EU Civil Society Forum on Drugs (CSFD). The CSFD is an expert group to the European Commission. Its membership comprises 45 civil society organizations coming from across Europe and representing a variety of stances in the fields of drug policy. The Forum supports the formulation and implementation of drug policies at the European level.

Dianova has actively participated in the CSFD since 2013; in addiction, it was in charge of coordinating the International Relations working group during a part of the European Drugs Strategy’s preparation process (April-October 2020).

The CSFD has maintained close communication with the European institutions, sending formal written contributions and holding meetings with representatives of the European Commission and the HDG. As a result, the final version of the Strategy 2021-2025 includes various elements identified in the CSFD contributions.

Civil society

The importance of civil society involvement in policy making, including the development and implementation of drug policies, is widely recognized – photo: Shutterstock, CC

Main points of issue

  • The Strategy aims to protect and improve the well-being of society and individuals, to protect and promote public health, to offer a high level of security and well-being for the general public and to increase health literacy. It focuses its action on the promotion of human rights and sustainable development. The EU is one of the strategy’s main promoters at the international level.
  • The Strategy provides a balanced, multidisciplinary and evidence-based framework for responding to the drugs phenomenon at the national, international and European levels.
  • It incorporates the perspective of gender equality and health equity.
  • The area of drug supply has been significantly strengthened compared to the previous strategy given the challenges presented in drug European markets, mainly the high availability of various types of drugs, ever larger seizures, increasing use of violence and profits. The Strategy put a great focus on enhancing security and tackles the prevention of, dissuasion from and disruption of drug-related crime, in particular organized crime.
  • The Strategy categorizes demand reduction by areas (prevention, treatment and healthcare services, harm and risk reduction) and is dedicated to making them more visible while providing additional development opportunities as compared with previous strategies.
  • With regard to prevention, the Strategy encompasses more contents while differentiating between universal prevention measures, selective prevention for young people and indicated prevention.
  • With regard to risk and harm reduction, it points to the need for more effective measures and services and takes into account innovative practices in this area.
  • It is consistent with the endeavours of the European Union on a global scale, linking drug policies to such essential elements as human rights, development and major international regulations. The Strategy promotes effective cooperation with other EU agencies (e.g. the European External Action Service) and is dedicated to strengthening their holistic vision.
  • It clearly reinforces the role of civil society throughout all actions developed at the local, national and international levels. It specifically mentions the role to be played by the CSFD.
  • The section dedicated to ‘ensuring access and reinforcing treatment and care services’ is much more extensive in this Strategy. Among many other elements:
    1. It differentiates between professional counselling services, psychosocial, behavioural and medication-assisted treatment – including person-centred opioid maintenance therapies – and social reintegration, rehabilitation and recovery programmes:
    2. It recognizes peer-led outreach and peer group work as a key component of the care plan of the person who uses drugs:
    3. It identifies the need to address barriers to accessing support services and treatment, whether they are based on demographic, situational, or personal factors.
    4. Identifies and seeks to address barriers to access to treatment services based on demographic, situational and personal factors. It aims to ensure that healthcare and social services are both sufficiently available, funded, and appropriate to the needs of their client groups, and that they take into account gender-specific needs. It also mentions telemedicine services.
    5. It seeks to address the stigmatization linked to drug use and drug use disorders needs and emphasizes that the inclusion of people that have experienced drug-related stigma should be taken into account when developing policies.
    6. It emphasizes the need to implement treatment and care services sensitive to the specific needs and life experiences of women. Measures should in particular be taken to identify and address the barriers women face in engaging with and pursuing counselling, treatment and rehabilitation services. These barriers include, among others, domestic violence, trauma, stigma, physical and mental health issues, etc. it promotes the development of women-only service options that take care of accompanying children, and insists on the implementation of close working partnerships with other care providers including services working with vulnerable women.
    7. It recognizes the diversity among people who use drugs and emphasizes the need to provide services that can address this diversity and reflect all people’s needs, including older people with a history of long-term drug use and dependence, people with comorbid mental health problems, LGBTI, people with poly drug use, people who use drugs and are also parents, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, people who engage in sex work and prostitution, and homeless people.

An ambitious commitment for the next five years

The EU Drugs Strategy 2021-2025 is probably the best developed EU strategy. It is balanced and comprehensive while reflecting the coherence of EU endeavours, especially at the international level. It also gives civil society the necessary leeway to participate through various processes and recognizes its contribution. It also categorizes the various areas of demand reduction, making them more visible while expanding such areas as prevention and treatment significantly.