Side event: Banking on evidence: drug policy experiences in Europe

Joanne Csete from Open Society Foundations Drug Policy Programme

Czech Republic and Switzerland co sponsoring.We are at a turning point in a positive sense when it comes to changing drug policy. Will reflect on the experiences of their countries.

Q: What was your experience?
Started formulating policy in the 70s. Saw a sudden increase in cannabis use. Had a progressive government. Had experts come forward with proposals. Drug issue was in the hands of the Ministry of Health. General climate of society that it was happy with new developments. Politicians, experts, support of society, these explain why the proposals were made. It was not legalisation, it was tolerance. It was a temporary solution because it was expected that other countries would soon follow and then legalisation would take place. During the development of the policy there was good infra structure: collecting data, evidence review, involvement of local people.

Q: Can science be brought into the debate about drugs?
Czech Republic
When the political debate is hot, it’s hard to involve science. Since fall of the iron curtain, drugs has never been a high level debate. It was one of the millions of problems in the transition period. Just another issue. That’s why the people who were asked to find a solution were medical people. Drug law is not on the agenda for politcal debated in Czech republic. This allowed them to think more rationally. In the 80s the drug problem was considered as capitalist western society. From the early 80s it was considered a mental health issue. The people with thr strongest voice were people from medical background. Talk to medical workers, social workers, people in communities, asked people from other countires.

Q: How do you see you the Swiss experience?
Organise collaboration with stakeholders. It was a benefit to have minister of health in charge. It was important to have good cooridanation between people from top level to grassroots. The policy came from the people, from the bottom, fighting against AIDs. Politicans only take action when problems get serious. It is important that you collaborate between everyone: health to police etc. It’s important because the action of one group can jepordise the work of the others. Eg to consider a syinge as proof of contravening drug laws, then it goes against encouraging people to use new sterile needles. Switzerland invented first consumption room. Community needs to see that police are on board witht he consumption, they need to see that the harms are limited and the positives are few and that people are not going to get hurt. In UNGASS 2016, all agencies in the uN should be involved, WHO, UNDP, HCoHR, even environment parts. They need to collaborate. They have to bring their experience. They must be pushed to do so. It’s not a nice issue and there is a lot to do on other issues. So we need to tell them that they commit to UNGASS 2016.

Q: What is it that you’d like other countries to understand about Portuguese experience?
Before 1974 we had no big problems concerning drugs. They were isolated. We weren’t s a sexy destination for tourism. After the democratic revolution happened, there was a sudden availability of substances and a curiosity. There was an idea that drug use equated to freedom. It started with cannabis, but other substances came in. Heroin became the big problem. By the end of the 80s, there were about 100,000 people hooked on heroin. It wasn’t just poor people, it cut across classes. AIDS came along, so it became a top political issue. Need to address it in a serious way. Developed health responses along with justice responses. There were centres for dealing with addiction, things didn’t get better. By the end of the 90s a group of experts were pulled together — judges to psychiatrists — and they had the mandate to rethink the policy. They visited  countries to see how they were addressing the problem. Based it on the idea that addiction is a health  and social condition. Proposed many ideas: needle exchanges, treatment, harm reduction etc. Also proposed decriminalisation to bring these things together. It makes no sense to put people in jail for using drugs. The only thing the Government asked was that their law stay within the conventions. They went as far as possible. There were still penalties.

Q:  Have NPS been an issue?
in the 90s, there was a rise in use of synthetics, like MDMA. Were allowed to do a quick policy response. Drug information monitoring system, was set up at rave parties on the spot. Politicans got nervous. There is now a lot of data about pills and have been able to monitor the development of substances. The system was a success. It’s an ever changing problem so you need ever changing solutions.

Q: Police are still around the table, how is the police don’t reject the health-approach?
When we decriminalised, the police were not convinced. There is an inter ministerial coordination body between 11 ministries. It’s a working group. But now 12 years later they are happy with the decision to decriminalise. They used to spend so much time and money enforcing the law. Small fish. When they got rid of those type of things, they had more time to work on crimes.

Czech Republic
Had a coordinating body at ministerial level. Included NGO representation. Need to allow Civil Society to have a say. They speak directly. They raise questions, and its not always pleasant. Put them all at the same table. It creates useful outcomes. Directly responsible to the Prime Minister. It’s the money. If you look at the results: HIV under 1 %, Hep C dropped from 50% to 20% (of Injecting drug users) low level of OD, the problems are low and stabilised.  Science is always there.

We saw a dramatic decrease in petty crimes.Was a good success for the police. They no longer had small crimes to give time to. Also, gave an opportunity to persue the higher up dealers? The biggest problem is now neighbourhoods being invaded by dealing. So now there is a pressure on police to remove dealers. This could be a threat to the policy. Next step is total decriminalisation for possession and use. The step after that is to legalise to take it out of the hands of criminals.

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