Last week, the Justice and Home Affairs Council adopted recommendations on alternatives to coercive sanctions for drug using offenders. These recommendations were approved within the frame of the EU Action Plan on Drugs 2017-2020 which requests member states to provide alternatives to coercive sanctions for drug using offenders “where appropriate, and in accordance with their legal frameworks”.

This agreement represents the political will of the 28 EU Member States to apply, in each legal system, alternative measures to coercive sanctions in order to: prevent crime; reduce recidivism; enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system and look at reducing health-related harms and minimising social risks.

Alternative measures can include: education; suspension of investigation or prosecution; suspension of sentence with treatment; rehabilitation and recovery, aftercare and social reintegration.

These recommendations correspond to Action 22 of the EU Action Plan on Drugs 2017-2020 which requests member states to provide alternatives to coercive sanctions for drug using offenders “where appropriate, and in accordance with their legal frameworks”. The Action Plan also requests concerned parties to increase monitoring, implementation and evaluation of alternatives to coercive sanctions which is a recommendation adopted by the Justice and Home Affairs Council.

This centralised decision to implement alternatives to the existing sanctions is a good omen for drug reformers. By encouraging the suspension of investigation and prosecution of drug users, and promoting the implementation of measures focusing on education, treatment and social reintegration, the European Union is alluding a decriminalisation of drug use in its member states.

Danny Kushlick, Head of External Affairs at Transform Drug Policy, said:

“It’s great to see Europe’s justice and home affairs ministers calling for the decriminalisation of people who use drugs and the UK should roll out decrim nationally as a matter of urgency. But this only deals with the demand side of the problem. Prohibition has failed on the supply side and that nettle must be grasped too. UK ministers must explore alternatives to prohibiting supply, including legalisation and regulation, to bring the country’s £4 billion a year drug market under their control.”

This political agreement may also pave the way to real reform initiatives among EU member states. Sensitivity regarding this issue often leads to governments and associated civic institutions hiding behind the UN guidelines, stating that their hands are tied by supranational regulation. This agreement gives EU member states the political support they need to undertake reforms that establish a fair treatment when it comes to drug users.

Avinash Tharoor, Policy and Communications Officer at Release, emphasised on the benefits this approach offers to drug users:

“By introducing and implementing alternatives to coercive sanctions, particularly treatment programmes, countries can improve public health, reduce the marginalisation and stigmatisation of vulnerable populations, and improve vulnerable people’s access to healthcare. There is a strong evidence-base for this approach; Portugal, which decriminalised the personal possession and use of all drugs in 2001, saw a dramatic decrease in drug-related deaths, as well as a reduction in the social costs of drug use, following their legislative reform.​ The Council’s call is a vital step in the right direction for drug policy; from punishment and criminalisation to education and public health.”

Pierre-Yves Galléty is Communications Officer at Volteface. Tweets @PYGallety

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