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Lessons from Europe – April 1998

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  • Lessons from Europe
    By MAP – Monday, 14 April 1998

    Copyright: MAP

    Europe has often looked to the United States for advice on drug control. The United States puts more resources into gathering intelligence on global trends, collects better data on domestic consumption patterns, and believes its methods of policing drug consumption and trafficking should serve as models for the rest of the world. But the new drugs and trafficking trends emerging in Europe might soon make the United States war on cocaine producers in Latin America seem as antiquated as a battle fought with muskets. Drug experts in the United States can now look to Europe for clues about new drugs making their way to American consumers, new producers aiming at United States markets, and fresh ways of thinking about drug control.

    Europe does not have a drug war like the one the United States is engaged in because Europeans would find it hard to agree on an enemy, let alone a response. Europe, for example, is itself a major producer of synthetic drugs. Synthetics represent a new way to produce and traffic drugs. One of these, MDMA ( 3, 4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine, commonly known as Ecstasy ), has the effect of a hallucinogen with an amphetamine-like stimulant. In 1995 police in Europe seized 396 mil-lion Ecstasy tablets. A cheap and readily available drug ( an evening’s supply costs between $10 and $25 ), Ecstasy has been an integral part of younger Europeans’ nightlife for more than 10 years.

    It is also easy to produce; recipes are available on the Internet. European traffickers in synthetic drugs do not have to deal with unwieldy opium, coca, and marijuana crops in remote rural areas, nor with truculent farmers and producers; they can make the drugs themselves and control the entire process. Synthetic drug production is as appealing to small criminal groups as to large organizations.

    Small producers can develop their business discreetly without confronting larger traffickers, which is not the case with cocaine and heroin, where new businesses frequently have to compete with established traffickers for control of raw materials and routes.

    Laboratories can produce as many as 12 million Ecstasy tablets daily and are even portable. In 1992 Dutch police seized a fully operational Ecstasy lab-oratory housed inside a shipping container that had been mounted on a flatbed truck and hauled throughout the Netherlands to avoid detection. Synthetic variants that are not yet illegal are also easy to develop; such is the concern in Europe about these variants that the European Union ( EU ) has introduced Union-wide measures to improve reporting on and accelerate the banning of new synthetic drugs to circumvent the two years it takes to get a narcotic banned by the UN.

    The Netherlands is the world’s largest producer of Ecstasy, although police have also uncovered laboratories in other European countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic. Until recently it had not been produced in any quantity in the United States, where supplies still tend to be imported from Europe. But the new popularity of Ecstasy and amphetamines in Europe is echoed in the resurgence in the popularity of methamphetamines in the United States, especially the southwest. The United States Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that 4.7 million Americans have used methamphetamines recently Ecstasy and its variants could easily be produced in vast quantities in the United States, as they are in Europe; no one has ever accused American entrepreneurs of being slow to recognize an attractive new product.


    Proportionally fewer Europeans than Americans use drugs. Yet, because both are Western and industrialized, the United States and European markets for illicit drugs are often assumed to be about equal, with regional variations in preferences for particular types of drugs. But Americans appear to be far more likely than Europeans to try illicit drugs, and this willingness makes them open to new products. According to a 1993 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 37.2 percent of Americans have tried illicit drugs. The proportion of Europeans who have tried illicit drugs, according to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction ( EMCDDA ), is only 5 to 16 percent, depending on the country surveyed.

    The United States also has more hard drug users proportionally Americans use more heroin than Europeans, although traditionally it was believed that European hard drug users preferred heroin and their American counterparts cocaine. While it is true that heroin has long been and remains the hard drug of choice in Europe, prevalence of use is no higher than in the United States. Indeed, the EMCDDA claims that the European prevalence of heroin use might be as low as half that of the United States. Nor has cocaine has become as popular in Europe as it is in the United States: official estimates put the percentage of Americans who have tried cocaine at 11.3 percent, compared with a European range from 1 percent ( Germany France, and Belgium ) to 4 percent ( Spain ). Cocaine costs more in Europe than in the United States, and there are other, cheaper local drugs from more reliable sources that compete with it, including European-produced methamphetamines.

    Lacking a serious cocaine demand problem, European governments do not focus special atten-tion on Latin America when they consider external illicit drug sources. In contrast, stopping the flow of cocaine is the main United States international drug control priority United States drugs have always been imported from other parts of the world, but Latin America has supplied almost all the cocaine, much of the marijuana, and a rising proportion of the heroin that United States drug users have consumed. Foreign drug policy has therefore been intensively focused on a small number of Andean countries, the Caribbean islands that serves as transit and money-laundering centers ( Jamaica, Aruba, Antigua, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico ), and Mexico.

    Europe has not had such a sharply defined front on which to wage a war on drugs. Drugs pour in overland through the Balkans and North Africa; by sea to isolated coves on the coasts of Italy Spain, Scotland, Ireland, and Greece, and the major ports of Rotterdam and London; and by air through every major airport on the continent. Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Britain, France, Germany Italy Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium are all major transit countries.

    The drug traffickers’ map of Europe also reflects every major political change that has taken place over the last decade, from the war in Bosnia to the cease-fire in Northern Ireland. When war raged in the Balkans, traffickers opened up Hungary and Czechoslovakia as routes to Western Europe. After conditions improved and the old Balkan trails were reopened, the new routes remained in place. Simi-larly the withdrawal of hundreds of British troops from Belfast in the mid-1990s allowed drugs to enter what had been one of the few relatively drug-free urban centers in Europe.


    The most important political change in Europe – – the collapse of communism – has also been the greatest boost to the global drug trade in the last decade. Communism’s end has given both trafficking and consumption a stimulus comparable only to that created by the Vietnam War. Eastern Europe has become the main source of drugs entering Western Europe, and drugs produced in the east are also finding their way to North America. The triangular trade involving traffickers in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Western European countries like Italy is no longer a nascent threat but an established reality. Every shipment of cocaine to Europe locks Latin American traffickers more tightly into this burgeoning market, which in turn protects them against the vicissitudes of their battle with United States law enforcement.

    The speed with which the drug trade in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states has developed is astonishing. According to the research group Oxford Analytica, the Russian narcotics business alone is worth an estimated $6 billion annually and proceeds from drugs are believed to have allowed organized crime to gain control of at least a quarter of Russia’s banks, more than half the country’s capital, and some 80 percent of all shares sold on the Russian stock exchange. Russia is also now a producer of synthetic drugs; St. Petersburg is the production center and acts as a magnet for unemployed chemists and pharmacists from the rest of Russia and other former Soviet republics, especially Latvia. The former Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan produce both opium poppy and marijuana, and Central Asia itself is a transit route for heroin being smuggled to Europe from Afghanistan and Pakistan. A 1997 report from the London-based International Insti-tute for Strategic Studies said that Kyrgyzstan alone was exporting more drugs than Burma or Thailand.

    Poland has become Europe’s largest producer of amphetamines. The country’s law enforcement agencies lack the capacity to control Poland’s thriving band of illicit entrepreneurs. Polish drug producers also manufacture a domestic opiate called “kompot”, derived from poppies grown in the “Polish Triangle” between Miechow, Proszowice, and Krakow. Poland, like the Czech Republic and Russia, also produces a variety of other illicit synthetic drugs, and its central location on the European mainland makes it an important transit country: Warsaw, Gdynia, and Gdansk are key transshipment points. In addition, Poland has a burgeoning consumption problem not entirely unrelated to its dual status as a producer and transit country: from 1990 to 1996, the number of registered Polish drug addicts rose by almost 50 percent to more than 20,000.

    Policies to respond to this increased drug activity are not in place.

    When European law enforcement officials began cooperating with Poland in the early 1990s, they found a yawning chasm between drug control there and in Western Europe. In all of 1996, police and customs officials detected only 97 cases of border trafficking. And not until 1997 did Polish police set up a narcotics unit to coordinate law enforcement operations. Police powers were curbed after the end of communism in Poland, but this process of liberalization, which did so much to enhance civil liberties, prohibited some of the stan-dard weapons that the police could use against the drug trade. Until recently undercover and sting operations were not allowed, nor were “controlled deliveries,” police operations in which officers follow a drug courier on a trail to what they hope will be a trafficker of greater importance. Countries such as Poland pose a particular problem for Western Europe because they will soon become part of the EU; the Western European countries must race to ensure that drug control is at least marginally effective before their borders are opened even further to new members in the east.

    EUROPEAN RESPONSES The drug war as a moral call to arms has always lacked resonance in Europe. Expectations about what drug policy can do are lower than in the United States; the possibility of victory over drugs – the elimination of drug abuse – is seldom raised, even rhetorically. Nor is drug policy conflated with military goals and security In the United States, the drug war has been both a metaphor and a literal description of policy since the Department of Defense overcame its reluctance in the 1980s to play an ever greater role in drug control. In Europe, drug control remains a civilian affair.

    There is, nevertheless, a high degree of concern about drugs in Europe. Most European countries are signatories to the three UN conventions on drugs.[1] Many European governments have emulated aspects of the United States drug strategy because they believe it produces a clearer, more direct approach to the problem; the British appointment of a United States-style drug czar in 1997 is a case in point. That the famously liberal Dutch policy on drugs disturbs rather than outrages its neighbors is largely thanks to the fact that the Netherlands has never actually legalized drugs but, as a matter of policy opts not to prosecute most drug users.

    Yet even within individual countries there is often little consensus on drug control. This range of opinion has produced vigorous debate about the allocation of resources for demand reduction programs, the policing of drug trafficking, and legalization and decriminalization.

    Strong opposition to drugs is always tempered or hampered, depending on one’s point of view, by dissent.

    France takes a strong anti-drug stance and for years has been the most vocal European critic of the more permissive drug laws of neighboring Netherlands. French President Jacques Chirac has ruled out any drug liberalization, and has insisted that France retain border checks on its northeastern frontiers to protect itself from Dutch drug trafficking and from “drug tourism” ( French and German drug users taking advantage of more liberal Dutch policies by crossing the border to buy drugs ). France’s insistence on the dangers of the Dutch drug trade blocked full implementation of the EU’s Schengen “Open Borders” agreement, which, in the interest of greater European integration, seeks to eliminate passport controls and customs checks among some EU member states.

    Yet members of the French government voice dissent from the status quo even while their government commits itself to maintaining it. In the campaign preceding France’s June 1997 parliamentary elections, now Prime Minister Lionel Jospin admitted to smoking marijuana and hinted that he favored decriminalization. Such an admission at election time suggests that he calculated that it might win him votes, or at least not lose him support. Environment Minister Dominique Voynet has said that she favors the legalization of cannabis, and readily admits to hav-ing smoked it herself.

    Those who openly support decriminalization are backed by a vocal minority A vigorous decriminalization campaign emerged after the 1997 British parliamentary elections to oppose the new Labour government’s hard line on drug control; several hundred campaigners openly smoked cannabis in front of police in Hyde Park to protest drug laws. Earnest British students have made a folk hero of Howard Marks, a recently released British drug trafficker. Known in the drug trade as “Mr. Nice” ( the title of his autobiography ), Oxford-educated Marks was one of the most successful European drug traffickers of the 1970s and 1980s, responsible for importing millions of dollars worth of cannabis. Now, with a cottage industry of books, public appearances, television interviews, and web pages, he has popularized himself as a peculiarly British type of trafficker: a decent iconoclast with impeccable manners.

    While attitudes toward the principle of illicit drug use vary, attitudes toward drug users also differ. Many approaches that might be considered radical elsewhere in the world have been in use for decades. The so-called British system, whereby doctors can supply drugs to registered addicts, has been in existence since 1934.

    Europeans are generally amenable to the treatment of addiction with the reg-ulated prescription of otherwise illicit drugs by the medical profession. In a September 1997 national referendum, 70 percent of Swiss voters approved a government plan to give regular doses of heroin to addicts after it was shown that Swiss addicts par-ticipating in an existing scheme committed 60 percent less crime.

    Many of the more innovative approaches to drug abuse have been introduced at the substate level. City governments have often produced alternative and experimental approaches to drug control. A transnational movement of European cities including Frankfurt, Hamburg, Amsterdam, and Zurich produced the Frankfurt Resolution, which supports the principles of “harm reduction.” The resolution amounts to the decrim-inalization of drugs: under certain regulated conditions, users will not be prosecuted for drug consumption.

    In the Netherlands, where the national approach is more liberal than in most countries, city governments’ alternative policies have often been toward greater strictness. In the northern Dutch town of Kampen, the mayor threatened to resign last year if the council passed a motion approving the opening of a coffee shop within municipal boundaries, and in the town of Groningen, tougher regulations have reduced the number of coffee shops from 35 to 14 ( the Dutch government has a famously liberal policy on drugs that permits the sale of cannabis in coffee shops ). The Frankfurt approach also has opposition among city governments: the April 1994 Stockholm Resolution, entitled European Cities against Drugs and signed by the mayors of 21 European capitals, is an anti-drug response to the decriminalization that the Frankfurt Resolution proposes.


    The Dutch policy allowing the sale of cannabis in coffee shops, which has been in place for more than 20 years, attempts to separate the markets for hard drugs ( heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines ) and soft drugs ( cannabis products ). The intention is to prevent users from progressing from soft drug use to hard drug use when exposed to a criminal underground marketing both. Coffee shops in the Netherlands are allowed to sell small amounts of cannabis openly without fear of prosecution. Until recently users could possess up to 0.5 grams of hard drugs or 30 grams of cannabis and not face arrest, unless the offender was also suspected of trafficking or another drug-related crime.

    In the context of varying responses to illicit drugs throughout Europe, particularly in cities like Frankfurt and Zurich, the Netherlands does not regard its drug policy as especially radical. The Dutch government has said that its drug policy is little more than an attempt to formalize and regulate a type of decriminalization that is already de facto in force in Britain, France, Germany and even the United States, where users possessing small quantities of soft drugs are rarely prosecuted. Implicit in this view is the sense that the Dutch government considers its neighbors to be hypocritical in their condemnation of its approach to drugs.

    Other European countries have ruled that possession of soft drugs need not be an indictable offense. The German federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled in March 1994 that an individ-ual should no longer be prosecuted if found in posession of cannabis deemed to be for personal use. The Netherlands argues that Dutch policy takes this approach one step further by reasoning that if drug use cannot be eliminated, it is prudent to regulate its use.

    In claiming success for the policy, the Dutch point out that the Netherlands has far fewer hard drug addicts ( approximately 180 per 100,000 of the population ) than neighboring France ( 280 per 100,000 ), and that in the last 20 years the number of Dutch cannabis users has remained stable, at around 600,000. They note that most Dutch heroin addicts are over 30, and that fewer younger people are taking up the habit. The Netherlands also claims success in certain public health matters: the government estimates that the number of deaths resulting from overdose, for example, is less than half that of most European countries.

    Yet the Netherlands has, under duress, changed its liberal policy on illicit drugs. In 1995 a policy review recommended reducing the availability of soft drugs by limiting the number of retail outlets ( some 1,200 coffee shops and an estimated 900 other unregulated points of sale ). Serious drug users were required to undergo compulsory rehabilitation. Most dramatic of all, the amount of cannabis individuals could buy in coffee shops was reduced from 30 grams to 5. The pressure for change came not from within the Netherlands but from its disgruntled neighbors, France and Germany which objected to their own citizens crossing the Dutch border to buy drugs. The Netherlands had agreed to ensure that its neighbors were not inconvenienced by its drug policy which was interpreted to mean surveillance of points of sale, especially in border regions. Coop-eration with neighbors also meant large-scale police deployment to apprehend drug runners at borders and ports. In 1994 the Dutch police arrested more than 800 people at the frontiers for drug offenses. Greatly increased policing at the borders, however, did not satisfy French and German concerns, and their dissatisfaction led directly to the change in Dutch policy


    Some European countries are dearly disturbed by their neighbors’ drug policies.

    However, the paradox of European drug policy is that, although European countries differ widely in their policies, they engage in far more multilateral drug cooperation than any other region in the world. In comparison with the Europeans, not a single country in the Western Hemisphere has displayed more than a rhetorical commitment to multilateral cooperation. The Organization of American States

    Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission has at times almost withered away for lack of attention and funding. When the commission wanted to set up a hemispheric network of drug information centers in the late 1980s, it turned to the EU for initial funding because it could not raise sufficient interest among its own member states. The United States spends little more than $5 million a year for multilateral cooperation, which is loose change in a federal drug budget of $16 billion in 1997. Although the United States has spent millions on drug control in Latin America, the funding is bilateral.

    The nations of Latin America might have supported United Nations International Drug Control Program ( UNDGP ) projects in their own countries, but otherwise have seldom looked beyond their own borders except to complain, albeit with some justification, about the catalyzing effects of the voracious American demand for drugs.

    For more than a decade, the UNDCP has been mainly a conduit for European antinarcotics funding. Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and, in particular, Italy have all financed major UNDCP projects in alternative development ( such as crop replacement, where farmers of coca and opium poppy crops are given assistance to allow them to produce licit crops instead ), judicial assistance, and treatment, education, and rehabilitation programs. Without Italian support in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the UNDCP would not have been able to initiate projects in Latin America or even sustain them.

    European countries have undertaken these tasks without sacrificing the integrity of their own foreign interests and responsibilities. The EU is far from being a unitary actor on the world stage, and in their external relations on drugs the countries of Western Europe do not necessarily have the same priorities. Britain, France, and the Netherlands have dependent territories and former colonies in the Caribbean that make drug trafficking and money laundering there a special responsibility Spain is concerned about cannabis trafficking from North Africa and complains that Gibraltar, an adjacent British territory is a transshipment point for drugs. Germany is less concerned about Gibraltar than about amphetamine trafficking from Poland and the Netherlands, and marijuana and heroin production in Central Asia. Multilateral cooperation only enhances their commitment to these individual priorities.

    Inside the EU, countries are also risking the surrender of considerable sovereignty over law enforcement to facilitate multilateral cooperation on transnational crime. When EU member states committed themselves in the late 1980s to a Single European Market, they were voting for the free movement of goods, capital, and people throughout Western Europe. Most countries – only Britain, Denmark, and Ireland firmly refused – wanted to see open borders between EU members. Open borders, however, facilitate transnational crime as well as transnational trade, and a complex network of law enforcement measures to deal with the consequences of open borders, such as hot pursuit, cross-border surveillance, and refugee status, has gradually been put in place. The Europeans have also set up Europol. Formally proposed in June 1991, Europol was a German initiative originally envisaged as a European police force, but its inter-governmental status makes it far from a European version of the FBI. Instead, it remains an intelligence-sharing agency with no executive or investigative powers, a focal point for multilateral cooperation on drugs.

    No one believes multilateral cooperation is easy. There are many difficulties in exchanging intelligence quickly and effectively among 15 ( and soon to be more ) countries with different languages and legal institutions. After several years of wrangling the Europol convention has still not been fully ratified. There is resistance to the agency based on profound misgivings about the ceding of sovereignty on law enforcement to the EU, and on the potential threat to civil liberties involved in the widening of police powers at the supranational level.

    The new drugs and traffickers emerging from Europe are reason enough for the United States to analyze the drug situation in Europe closely.

    But the fact that the challenges of multilateral drug cooperation are being so directly and urgently addressed in Europe just as the Western Hemisphere countries are considering multilateral cooperation themselves means that they should also be looking toward Europe for an intimation of how truly regional drug cooperation might function.

    [1]The three are the 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, also known as the Vienna Convention; the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances; and the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.






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