To be clear, there is no Europe-wide agreement on drug policy. Some countries — including the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland — categorize marijuana as a soft drug (similar to alcohol and tobacco). Others — including Sweden and Greece — strictly enforce laws against both marijuana and hard drugs (in fact, drug-related arrests are on the rise in some countries).
But what most European countries have in common is an emphasis on education and prevention. They believe that, by handling drug abuse more as a public health problem than as a criminal one, they are better able to reduce the harm it causes — both to the individual (health problems and antisocial behavior) and to society (healthcare costs, policing costs, and drug-related crime).
Generally, Europeans employ a three-pronged strategy for dealing with hard drugs: law enforcement, education, and healthcare. Police zero in on dealers — not users — to limit the supply of drugs. Users generally get off with a warning and are directed to get treatment; any legal action respects the principle of proportionality. Anti-drug education programs work hard to warn people (particularly teenagers) of the dangers of drugs. And finally, the medical community steps in to battle health problems associated with drug use (especially HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C) and to help addicts reclaim their lives. When it comes to soft drugs, policies in much of Europe are also more creative and pragmatic than America's.
I'm not saying Europe always gets it right. They have employed some silly tactics in efforts to curb marijuana use. For example, a study in France showed that boys smoke more pot than girls, which they attributed to boys being nervous about approaching girls socially. So they literally gave boys government-funded training in flirting. While this notion seems ridiculous, you have to admit it's refreshing to see legislators thinking "outside the box." Even if some of their ideas fail, others turn out to be brilliant.
Meanwhile, the US seems afraid to grapple with this problem openly and creatively. Rather than acting as a deterrent, the US criminalization of marijuana drains precious resources, clogs our legal system, and distracts law enforcement attention from more pressing safety concerns. Of the many billions of tax dollars we invest annually fighting our war on drugs, more than two-thirds is spent on police, courts, and prisons. Meanwhile, European nations — seeking a cure that isn't more costly than the problem itself — spend a much larger portion of its drug policy funds on doctors, counselors, and clinics. According to the EU website, European policymakers estimate that they save 15 euros in police and healthcare costs for each euro invested in drug education, addiction prevention, and counseling.
Like Europe, the US should be open to new solutions. It's out of character for a nation so famous for its ingenuity to simply label the drug problem a "war" and bring in the artillery. Europeans make a strong case that approaching drug abuse from the perspective of harm reduction can be very effective.
About This Entry
You are reading "The US and Europe: Two Different Approaches to Drug Abuse", an entry posted on 29 January 2010 by Rick Steves.