Perspectives From Europe

One of the most cited arguments for liberalization of drug laws is the example of European nations that have moved down that path, the Netherlands being a striking example, Switzerland as well. The reality is complex and typically not very clearly presented, particularly by prohibitionists who wish to discredit any alternative to the drug war status quo. But it is true that much of Europe is in a very different place vis à vis drug policy than the United States. Last week I had the chance to visit a number of European cities and take a look at the scene myself for the first time.

Contrary to prohibitionist distortion and popular misconception, the Netherlands hasn't legalized drugs, technically not even marijuana. Marijuana policy is pretty close to constituting a de facto legalization, though, at least in some respects. Residents and visitors alike can freely walk into any number of downtown Amsterdam's "coffee shops."

No reasonable observer can stroll Amsterdam's streets and conclude that Dutch marijuana use is a major problem. The tolerance policy, actualized to a degree approaching regulated legalization, very clearly works for as far as it goes. Those hysterical voices labeling the country's drug scene a disaster are being profoundly dishonest. Liberalization of policies toward other drugs has not progressed as far -- they are still prohibited -- but users are not criminalized.

Some dealers of hard drugs don't seem to be too worried either. More than once I was followed up a block or more by sellers who didn't want to take "not interested" for an answer. When I finally convinced them I really wasn't planning to buy any drugs, they proceeded to beg for cash. They probably don't expect to wind up in prison, at least not for very long.

Annoying as they were, though, they didn't seem very dangerous; the minor annoyance of some over-aggressive street peddlers doesn't seem a good reason to abandon an enlightened policy that has lowered the human toll of punitive, ineffective drug prohibition laws. On the other hand, the phenomenon serves to illustrate the limitations of tolerance whilst drugs remain illegal -- ultimately only legalization can spare us the disorders of the illicit street market. It is ironic that the most striking aspect of the Dutch drug scene for me was one of the consequences of continued prohibition from which the country still suffers.

The drug policy debate in much of Western Europe has also advanced much further than the typical political dialogue here in the states. At a high-level seminar convened earlier this week by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a leading British think tank, participants examined the international drug treaties and the obstacles they present to states or nations that wish to enact drug policies that aren't based on prohibition. The consensus was that the treaties do not prevent signatory nations from moving quite far in the direction of liberalization, but do forbid them from stepping over the line to actual drug legalization.

The consensus was also that the end of prohibition won't truly be achieved without repealing or at least amending the treaties. Europe is a diverse continent made up of many neighboring nationalities and cultures, many of which warred for centuries. Europeans hence tend to view the system of international agreements as an important factor enabling their various societies to coexist in prosperity and peace. It is inconceivable to them that any European nation would simply pull out of the international drug conventions, regardless of how much of a liability its populace or politicians may come to view them.

Ireland was one exception discussed there -- they never ratified the drug conventions and hence aren't bound by them -- but Ireland has also never had the drug policy debate that some of its neighbors have, and there is little interest there even in harm reduction or decriminalization. Repeal of reform of the conventions, then, is not enough, as prohibition is certainly capable of existing without them. But as much as we American drug reformers may dream of it, Europe is not going to legalize drugs in the absence of a coordinated global shift in the ground rules governing drug policies.

The seminar also concluded that amending the treaties is not going to be easy. In March of next year, for example, the United Nations will hold another General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. (Readers may remember the 1998 UNGASS and its silly slogan -- "Drug Free in Ten, We Can Do It!") A scholar formerly employed by the UN pointed out that a decisive majority of nations would be needed to initiate the process of even considering modifying the treaties, and that the US and the set of poor, international aid recipient nations under its thumb are more than enough to block it. The US even has enough power to prevent such a vote from taking place, even though it hasn't paid up its UN dues and hence couldn't actually vote. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Republic's Senate of the Star Wars movies, corrupted under the influence of the Dark Lord of the Sith, hardly a model for enlightened international policymaking.

But if the loosening of drug prohibition's international stranglehold seems years away, it will be forever if we don't start to try. So start we have. At a meeting in Antwerp last weekend, representatives of a wide range of European organizations decided to join forces with sympathetic political leaders and organizations from other continents to preempt the UN's drug barons and call for an end to prohibition, with reform of the drug conventions as an initial step toward that goal. DRCNet is a proud sponsor and co-organizer of this event, which has affiliated with our upcoming international conference series, "Out from the Shadows: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century." We will in the near future present a special report on the organizations leading drug policy reform in Europe and their plans for this and related efforts.

Europe has further to go in drug policy than it sometimes seems to those of us watching from afar. Nevertheless, it seems true that the spirit of freedom burns there more strongly, while our own nation suffers under the burden of drug war ideology and terrorism-spawned police state policies. Opponents of drug prohibition and advocates of reform must work together across oceans and borders to usher in a new age of tolerance and enlightenment for the people of all nations.

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