Europe Wages Selective War On Drug Use
October 16, 2007
Europe has a drug problem, and knows it. But the Europeans' approach
to it is quite different from the American "war on drugs." I spend 120
days a year in Europe as a travel writer, so I decided to see for
myself how it's working. I talked with locals, researched European
drug policies and even visited a smoky marijuana "coffee shop" in
Amsterdam. I got a close look at the alternative to a war on drugs.
Europeans are well aware of the U.S. track record against illegal drug
use. Since President Nixon first declared the war on drugs in 1971,
the United States has locked up millions of its citizens and spent
hundreds of billions of dollars (many claim that if incarceration
costs are figured in, a trillion dollars) waging this "war." Despite
these efforts, U.S. government figures show the overall rate of
illicit drug use has remained about the same.
By contrast, according to the 2007 U.N. World Drug Report, the
percentage of Europeans who use illicit drugs is about half that of
Americans. (Europe also has fewer than half as many deaths from
overdoses.) How have they managed that - in Europe, no less, which
shocks some American sensibilities with its underage drinking,
marijuana tolerance and heroin-friendly "needle parks"?
Recently, in Zurich, Switzerland, I walked into a public toilet that
had only blue lights. Why? So junkies can't find their veins. A short
walk away, I saw a heroin maintenance clinic that gives junkies
counseling, clean needles and a safe alternative to shooting up in the
streets. Need a syringe? Cigarette machines have been retooled to sell
clean, government-subsidized syringes.
While each European nation has its own drug laws and policies, they
seem to share a pragmatic approach. They treat drug abuse not as a
crime but as an illness. And they measure the effectiveness of their
drug policy not in arrests but in harm reduction .
Generally, Europeans employ a three-pronged strategy of police,
educators and doctors. Police zero in on dealers - not users - to
limit the supply of drugs. Users often get off with a warning and are
directed to get treatment. Anti-drug education programs warn people
(especially young people) of the dangers of drugs, but they get beyond
the "zero tolerance" and "three strikes" rhetoric that may sound good
to voters but rings hollow with addicts and at-risk teens. And
finally, the medical community steps in to battle health problems
associated with drug use (especially HIV and hepatitis C) and help
addicts get back their lives.
Contrast this approach with the American war on drugs. As during
Prohibition in the 1930s, the United States spends its resources on
police and prisons to lock up dealers and users alike. American drug
education (such as the now-discredited DARE program) seemed like
propaganda, and therefore its messengers lost credibility.
Perhaps the biggest difference between European and American drug
policy is how each deals with marijuana. When I visited the Amsterdam
coffee shop that openly sells pot, I sat and observed: People were
chatting; a female customer perused a fanciful array of "loaner"
bongs. An older couple parked their bikes and dropped in for a baggie
to go. An underage customer was shooed away. In the Netherlands, it's
cheaper to get high than drunk, and drug-related crimes are rare.
After 10 years of allowed recreational marijuana use, Dutch anti-drug
abuse professionals agree that there has been no significant increase
in pot smoking among young people and that overall cannabis use has
increased only slightly. Meanwhile, in the United States, it's easier
for a 15-year-old to buy marijuana than tobacco or alcohol - because
no one gets carded when buying something on the street.
The Netherlands' policies are the most liberal, but across Europe no
one is locked away for discreetly smoking a joint. The priority is on
reducing abuse of such hard drugs as heroin and cocaine.
Meanwhile, according to FBI statistics, in recent years about 40
percent of the roughly 80,000 annual drug arrests were for marijuana -
the majority (80 percent) for possession.
In short, Europe is making sure that the cure isn't more costly than
the problem. While the United States spends tax dollars on police,
courts and prisons, Europe spends its taxes on doctors, counselors and
clinics. EU policy-makers estimate that they save 15 euros in police
and health costs for each euro invested in drug education and
European leaders understand that a society has a choice: Tolerate
alternative lifestyles or build more prisons. They've made their
* Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows
on public television and radio. This first appeared in the Los Angeles