Drug policy public hearing – a revivalist meet for the disciples of dope.
A Brussels Parliament sketch by Peter Stoker – Director, National Drug Prevention Alliance
In the comfortable and prestigious surroundings of the European Parliament, a ‘Public Hearing’ was – in the event – heard by very few of The Public. Perhaps this is just as well, for the average citizen might have torched this expensive building, built from his tax money, had they heard what was being said.
Under the name of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, the hearing concerned what was euphemistically called the ‘Anti-Drug’ Strategy, 2005 – 2012, and its attendant ‘Action Plans’ (2005 – 2008 and 2009 – 2011). Enthusiasts of drug policy will know the special significance of 2008; this is the year in which the UN is set to review its Conventions on Drugs, for which more than 100 nations have signed up, thereby generating an enormous and positive influence on drug policy around the world. It is precisely because the Conventions have a positive influence, a bulwark against legalisation, that they are hated by the pro-legalisation crowd. They would kill them today if they could but meanwhile they are working behind and in front of every available screen to administer a death blow as soon as they can.
Deep concern for the public health, social cohesion and safety of European society was cited as the drive for the ‘Anti-Drug’ Strategy – surely matters of interest to The Public, but this meeting was populated by a rather different variety of human being.
Instead of the public there was a collection of around 150 people – of which more than 100 came ‘on a mission from Gomorrah’, bearing banners and leaflets, and demanding a Europe of free drugs – not a Europe free of drugs. Largely in harmony with this aspiring cluster were some 15 MEPs who, if they spoke at all, spoke in terms which garnered the applause of the 100. Also on hand were around 25 EU officials who maintained at discreet silence – in all but one noteworthy case. Mathematicians amongst you will note that this leaves about five people are not accounted for? Who they? The prevention platoon – including yours truly.
Known drug legalisers and liberalisers were greeted like old friends – which maybe they were – and were given reserved seating plus arranged speaking slots in the agenda. Thus were we treated to presentations by ENCOD, TNI, IAPL and others who would not be given house room in any self-respecting house.
Looking on benevolently but keeping a low profile was Mike Trace, the disgraced former Deputy Drugs Tsar for the UK who, on the eve of his elevation to head of Demand Reduction for the UN, was spectacularly exposed by the London Daily Mail as running covert operations with legaliser bodies, notably those bankrolled by George Soros. Trace was obliged to resign his seat at the UN even before he had begun warming it, but he remains a force on the UK and European scene, the beneficiary of a determined rehabilitation scheme by those who feel there is still some useful mileage in him. He is a top cat in Drug Treatment Limited, in the Beckley Foundation, and in RAPt – the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust – the breadwinner job he has held since before his heady days of Drug Tsardom.
The meeting was chaired by Belgian MEP Antoine Duquesne, and did little to diminish his reputation as a strange person. A welcome was offered by the Health Minister for Luxemburg, who promised that of all present today had left their dogmas leashed up outside the front door, and that no preachers had been admitted. Our main goal, he suggested, should be free to reduce Harm … not only the physiological harm drug-users suffer but also the harm of their social exclusion (presumably users should be set on a pedestal in society). The minister concluded by entreating all present to not stick to a static view; there are many approaches, he said, witness the contents of the Action Plan produced by the splendidly named Horizontal Drug Group on the 23rd of February this year.
Next up was a spokesman for the Pompidou Group, Bob Kaiser, who did his best to maintain gravitas in presenting a predictable and unimaginative series of recommendations, ending with the plea that money should not be spent on new organisations (the implication being that it was better to spend it on old organisations – like his).
Paul Griffiths, spokesman for the Lisbon-based monitoring centre, EMCDDA, uttered the recurrent plea for more and better data, not withstanding what he saw as improvements in recent years. We needed, he said, to get much better at collecting evidence, if – that is – evidence-based policy (as distinct from policy-based evidence) is the goal.
A sanguine spokesman from the International Red Cross made new friends in the audience when he asserted that the notion of a drug-free world is unrealistic and that it was in the nature of man to swallow psychoactive substances – much in the way he had evidently swallowed this rhetoric. He lost one friend, however, when he dismissed the concerns of of Madame Roure, MEP for Lyon, France, who spoke of young children in deprived areas being drawn into drug use; that – said the Red Cross man – was a South American or Eastern Europe problem i.e. nothing for us civilised types over here to get excited about. Madame R gave him a short shrift; she was, she said, talking about the fair city of Lyon – not Bogota or Bucharest.
Luc Beauman, spokesman for ENCOD, knew he was preaching to the converted. From his position on the top table he presented a relaxed and intellectually stylish restatement of their position. At this, the 100 erupted into thunderous and extended applause, holding aloft colourful if modestly-sized banners (possibly designed to fit comfortably inside one’s jacket).
It was then that the assembled drug freedom fighters in the cheap seats became restless. Surely, the first cautiously suggested, it is the system of making drugs illegal which just makes prevention harder to appear: wouldn’t a bright new day dawn and everything be super if we just legalised them all?. Others quickly followed over this rickety bridge head: A man from Bologna complained that he couldn’t get a drink after 9pm or smoke cigarettes in shops – this is Prohibitionism even with legal drugs, so it’s just part of the same problem, and we must recognise that prohibitionists are dangerous animals. The appropriately-named ‘Freek’ Polack claimed that he had just one question for the Parliament – then proceeded to ask five; the gist of it was that policies which don’t enable drug use are failures, so why are we silent on this failure? He was received in silence.
An impassioned plea from a hirsute young German drug user took the form of a velvet trap – “You say we need your help, I say you need our help, so when will you stop isolating and demonising us?” (as in ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’).
An Italian plaintiff said he knew of five people, arrested for drug possession who, when their names were published in the media, committed suicide.The notion of an early death during this meeting was perhaps growing in the minds of some, who were by now finding the whole affair life-threatening.
In the name of balance, a Belgian prevention centre worker was invited to speak. He remarked that the discussions “seemed to getting very polemical” – perhaps unintentionally implying that they had not been polemical from the kick-off.
ENCOD’s Luc Beauman took another bite at the cherry; if cannabis is demonised, he opined, then kids don’t take any drug information seriously. Ergo, unreliable prevention messages damage all prevention messages, so his argument went.
( Unreliable libertarian messages did not, it seemed, qualify for the same criticism). ‘Regulation’ – the new buzzword for Legalisation – would usher in a new dawn of ‘ sincere and and honest information’. This would be best achieved by involving citizens, a pious hope of politicians since the 1980s but sadly a hope yet to be realised. 2008 or 2012 were, said Luc, intolerably far away … “What do we want? Regulation! When do we want it? Now!” … and so on …
It was left to the one civil servant who did speak to administer a cold douche of reality. Carel Edwards, Head of the Anti-Drugs Coordination Unit at the EC, told it how it was – and is likely to remain. He was given just six minutes to speak; and said “If you think I can, or will state that the EC position in six minutes, think again”. If today had demonstrated anything, he said, it had demonstrated once again the enormous confusion over the whole subject. The notion that opinions from street level would reach to and direct the top of government is the kind of dream that only comes from those smoking unusual tobaccos. In support of this he cited how few MEPs were here today – and the fact that no of single member state has yet reached what can be called a consenus on drug policy.
He made a somewhat bizarre reference to the Institute for Global Drug Policy Conference held in the European Parliament building about a month ago, characterising this as “Americans expressing a very repressive policy” (It seems that an attendance register, showing the wide variety of European and worldwide delegates at that meeting might helpfully enlighten him). In closing, he said the EC’s aim was to produce an ‘ideology-free, evidence-based’ policy. Those who wanted to debate ideology should go elsewhere; coming as it did after three and a half hours of almost unceasing ideology-pushing, this remark fell on stoned and stony ground alike.