DEA Drug Intelligence Brief
policy in Western Europe has always been experimental, but, in recent
years, several countries have joined the Netherlands and Switzerland in
their pursuit of alternative methods for dealing with the drug epidemic.
Many Western European nations are refocusing efforts on the social
welfare aspect of drug use and reducing their focus on the law
enforcement response, while imposing stricter penalties on those
organizations that supply illegal drugs. Some of the alternative
measures that are gaining momentum in Western Europe include
legalization, decriminalization, and harm reduction.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) defines
“legalization” as “making legal what is currently illegal.” At present,
drug use is not a criminal offense in Austria, Belgium, Germany,
Ireland, and the United Kingdom with only minor exceptions.1
While some nations have taken steps authorizing referendums on the issue
of legalization, as Switzerland did in 1998, most have preferred to
approach the drug legalization issue by focusing on decriminalization.
DEA defines “decriminalization” as “the removal of, or
reduction in, criminal penalties for particular acts.” Decriminalization
of drug use and/or possession is a policy that is widely supported in
most of Western Europe. Many nations’ drug policies have been a policy
of de facto decriminalization for many years, but it is only recently
that governments are changing their legislation to officially reduce or
remove criminal penalties for acts such as drug use and possession. In
several Western European nations, possession of small quantities of
drugs will no longer result in a prison sentence, but rather in
administrative sanctions that could include a fine and/or confiscation
of driver’s license or passport.
Harm reduction is another policy option finding
increasing popularity in Europe. Harm reduction can take on many forms
and, according to DEA, “is often used to describe specific programs that
attempt to diminish the potential harmful consequences associated with a
particular behavior.” Some of those programs include needle exchange,
substitution treatment, maintenance treatment, and injection rooms. The
degree to which these programs are incorporated into society depends on
the country in question, with many nations developing pilot programs in
an attempt to ascertain the advantages of such programs.
While there are many similarities between drug
policies, there is currently no consistent policy or law throughout
Europe. The variety of laws and policies in place at the national levels
makes it difficult to create a uniform European drug policy for the
European Union (EU). 2 The EU has
served as more of a forum of discussion or exchange of ideas rather than
a resource or guide for individual government policy.
All EU member nations are signatories of the 1961,
1971, and 1988 United Nations (U.N.) Conventions.
3 Additionally, non-EU member nations,
such as Norway and Switzerland, incorporate the regulations set out in
the U.N. Conventions. However, through decentralized drug policy,
decriminalization, and harm reduction measures, many nations have been
able to relax drug laws without directly violating the conventions.
TRENDS IN DRUG POLICY
there are a variety of drug laws and policies in Western Europe, several
trends are noteworthy. The trend toward the decriminalization of drug
use and possession has become an important force in Europe. Although
some countries, such as Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, and Switzerland,
took steps to remove criminal penalties for cannabis possession in the
past year, other countries, such as Portugal, decriminalized all drug
use and possession for personal use.
The decriminalization of minor drug offenses has
resulted in much international criticism from organizations, such as the
DEA, and the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board.
However, decriminalization is not as radical a concept in Europe as may
appear at first glance. A common misconception is equating
decriminalization to legalization. In the Netherlands, for instance,
cannabis possession is not legal, only tolerated by Dutch authorities.
Based upon the concept of the separation of markets,
4 “coffeeshops” began to emerge
throughout the Netherlands in 1976, offering cannabis products for sale.
While possession and sale of cannabis are not legal, coffeeshops are
permitted to exist under certain restrictions.
2001, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Switzerland
drafted, proposed, or approved legislation for the decriminalization of
minor drug use and possession offenses ¾ in most cases, for cannabis.
The United Kingdom debated reclassification of cannabis in 2001, to
lower penalties for cannabis possession. That same year, the Lambeth and
Brixton areas of South London implemented a pilot program
decriminalizing minor cannabis possession. Several other countries
including Austria, France, and Italy decriminalized minor drug use and
possession in the past decade. Ireland was one of the first countries to
decriminalize drug possession with the inception of the Misuse of Drugs
Act in 1977, which decriminalized minor cannabis possession. While not
all European countries have changed their laws to reduce or remove
penalties for minor offenses, all have taken steps to offer a variety of
treatment and harm reduction measures.
Treatment and Harm Reduction
The prevailing belief in Europe is that drug addiction
is an illness, not a crime. European countries, including those that
have not formally decreased criminal penalties for offenses, are
searching for alternatives to prison. In many cases, addicts have an
option for treatment instead of penalties. Even Sweden, which has some
of the most stringent policies against drugs, offers a suspension of
sentence for minor drug offenses in return for treatment under a
Treatment options are no longer limited to
detoxification or methadone reduction. Several European nations,
including Switzerland, offer maintenance programs. While the ultimate
goal of treatment is abstinence, maintenance treatment, like other harm
reduction measures, is designed to regulate the drug use of those who
are not willing to seek traditional forms of treatment. Maintenance
programs can consist of methadone, morphine, heroin, or another opiate.
Methadone maintenance is the most common, but several countries,
including Germany, are experimenting with distributing heroin itself.
the 1970s, Switzerland pioneered methadone treatment for opiate addicts.
Today, treatment for opiate addiction has expanded to include morphine
treatment and, in 1994, heroin distribution for addicts. While Swiss
heroin distribution has received international criticism, the Swiss
public supports the program and, in 1999, overwhelmingly supported the
program in a national referendum.
The rapid spread of the HIV virus among intravenous
drug users in the 1980s forced governments to look for measures that
would reduce the harmful effects of drug use for those who refused
treatment. A wide variety of harm reduction measures have developed
throughout Europe. Some of the most common measures include
needle-exchange programs and consumption rooms. Countries, such as
Germany and Switzerland, have created extensive harm reduction programs
to include social reintegration skills for the addict; however, even the
more conservative country of Finland is beginning to experiment with
harm reduction measures.
The increased focus on health issues related to drug
use has resulted in a flurry of proposals and programs to increase harm
reduction measures across Western Europe. All regions in Belgium are
implementing drug hotlines and HIV and hepatitis prevention programs.
Needle exchange programs are widely used in France. In 1991, the French
Government approved an experiment allowing for the testing of 3,
4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), commonly known as Ecstasy, and
other synthetic drugs at “rave parties.” In Luxembourg, substitution
treatment, needle exchange, and consumption rooms now have a legal basis
since the passage of the law of April 27, 2001.
Since 1958, Norwegian law has allowed treatment as an
alternative to prison for those convicted of drug offenses and, in 1991,
introduced compulsory treatment for offenders. In 1996, the Norwegian
Government went a step further to include compulsory treatment for
pregnant drug or alcohol users. Under the new provisions, the unborn
child’s safety and health are placed above the abuser’s freedom to
choose whether to seek treatment. To reduce the potential harm to the
unborn child, a user may be kept in treatment for the duration of the
pregnancy without her consent, provided voluntary treatment is not an
In 1988, Swedish law changed to allow for compulsory
treatment of addicts. Under this law and the Care of Young Persons
Special Provisions Act of 1990, the court may order treatment in the
case of adult and juvenile offenders. In 2001, Dutch legislation went
into effect regulating the Penal Care Facility for Addicts, a compulsory
treatment facility for repeat offenders. The facility is based upon
research favoring mandatory confinement for treatment, when voluntary
treatment has failed.
Greek law also allows for detained compulsory
treatment for addicts, but, in practice, the facilities do not exist, so
addicts remain in prison. The criminal justice system also seems to be
reluctant to order mandatory treatment, so many of Greece’s harm
reduction methods remain underutilized.
ALTERNATIVES FOR THOSE IN THE PENAL SYSTEM
addicts from penal institutions is only part of the problem. Dealing
with the addict population already inside penal institutions is another
problem. Spain, among other European countries, has implemented many of
the same treatment and harm reduction measures ¾ inside penal
institutions as well as outside ¾ to combat the drug epidemic. Methadone
treatment and needle exchange programs are now available inside the
Spanish prison system to address the inmate addict population.
Attempting to address drug issues in all strata of
society, the Swiss Government is taking steps to combat drug addiction
inside the prison system. According to the Swiss Federal Office of
Public Health, approximately one quarter of those in prisons or jails
inject drugs. Some prisons have established drug-free wings, where
inmates are voluntarily segregated from the prison populace and refrain
from drug use; other prisons have installed methadone treatment
programs; and some are experimenting with medically supervised heroin
use. For addicts who do not seek treatment, the prison system offers
several harm reduction measures including needle exchange, materials to
disinfect needles, and distribution of condoms.
A pilot program, similar to the program in
Switzerland, is underway in Belgium’s prison system. Under this program,
“drug free” sections or wings are established in prisons to segregate
non-users in an attempt to prevent an increase in users in the penal
system. Harm reduction measures are also imposed in prison facilities
throughout Italy, where inmates with substance abuse problems may apply
for treatment in place of their prison sentence. This measure can be
used for inmates to start or re-start treatment.
Other countries, such as Portugal, are only looking at
the feasibility of implementing programs in the prison system.
Currently, there are no harm reduction measures available in the
Portuguese prison system. A review of the Spanish prison system, and the
harm reduction measures in place there, has forced the Portuguese
Government to review the possibility of implementing a needle exchange
program within its prison system.
INCREASED PENALTIES FOR TRAFFICKING
Maximum Trafficking Penalties*
Lifelong forced labor
The maximum penalities may not be applicable in all cases. In many
cases, the maximum penalty applies to extenuating circumstances,
such as the death of a user.
While focusing on treating and reducing the harm to
the addict population, European nations are also focusing effort and
funds against the supply of illicit drugs, increasing penalties against
those who traffic in illicit substances. In countries, such as Austria,
France, Greece, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom, drug trafficking can
result in sentences up to life imprisonment. Europeans, while relaxing
penalties against addicts, are focusing their attention on the
dismantlement of organized drug trafficking organizations.
Drug trafficking is a serious offense in Western
Europe resulting in a wide range of penalties. Leaders of drug
trafficking organizations in Austria could be sentenced to 10 to 20
years in prison, but with the implementation of new legislation in 2001,
they will now face the possibility of life imprisonment. In Luxembourg,
if a trafficker supplies drugs to minors, the law allows for penalties
up to lifelong forced labor, and in Norway, the most serious drug
offenses are classified as those having “very aggravating
circumstances.” This categorization is usually reserved for the leaders
of large international trafficking organizations; it contains a penalty
¾ equivalent to murder ¾ of up to 21 years in prison.
Over the past decade, the United Kingdom has continued
to increase penalties for drug trafficking. In 1995, the 1994 Drug
Trafficking Act was implemented and replaced the Drug Trafficking
Offenses Act of 1986. While this Act applies only to England and Wales,
Scotland and Northern Ireland have similar laws.
6 Under the Drug Trafficking Act, the
court assumes that all current assets, including any owned by the
offender during the previous 6 years, are the result of trafficking
offenses. Unless the offender can prove otherwise, the court may seize
these assets. The penal procedure (summary judgment or indictment) and
the drug classification determine the trafficking penalties in the
United Kingdom. The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act divides controlled
substances into three classes, A, B, and C. 7
Class A drug trafficking is punishable by up to life imprisonment and,
in 2000, the Powers of the Criminal Courts Act established a minimum
7-year sentence for a third conviction of Class A drug trafficking. In
2001, the Criminal Justice and Police Act enabled the courts to
strengthen controls on convicted traffickers. Through this act, the
court can place a ban on all overseas travel of a convicted trafficker
for up to 4 years, in an attempt to reduce his opportunity to re-engage
in trafficking activities.
France has also consistently increased penalties for
drug trafficking offenses. A 1986 law distinguished between penalties
for trafficking and low-level drug dealing or selling, and a 1987 law
increased the penalties for those who sell drugs to minors. This law
expanded the focus of those prosecutable for drug trafficking offenses
to include those who launder drug money. In 1994, the new Penal Code
imposed the possibility of life in prison for leaders of organized drug
trafficking organizations and up to 30 years for other members of the
organization. The French Government continued to expand its attack on
drug trafficking with the imposition of a 1996 law that allows the
boarding and inspection of vessels on the high seas that are believed to
be involved in drug trafficking.
Recent Increases in Trafficking Penalities
Penalty increased to life in prison
Those aware of an aggravated narcotics offense, but
who do not alert authorities are punishable by up to 10 years*
Penalties for leaders of organizations increased up
1993 & 1997
’93-Increased penalties for trafficking and
penalized trafficking in precursors
‘97-Penalties increased up to life for recidivist trafficker and
dealing to minors**
‘96-Allows a person suspected of trafficking to be
detained for a maximum of 7 days
‘99-Increased the penalty for trafficking in quantities worth more
10,000 Irish Pounds to life and an unlimited fine***
Introduced a tougher law aimed at foreign drug
traffickers, allowing the detention of illegal residents for up to
2000 & 2001
‘00-Established a minimum 7-year sentence for a
third conviction of Class A drug trafficking
‘01-Allows the government to ban all overseas travel for convicted
traffickers for up to 4 years
aggravated narcotics offense is one that involves a “very dangerous”
substance or large quantities of it; considerable financial profit,
the offender acts as a member of an organized drug trafficking
group; serious danger is caused to the life or health of several
people; or narcotics distributed to minors.
** In 1999, Greece made a slight switch, offering leniency to
addicts who traffic to support their habit.
*** Also introduced a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years for
such a trafficking offense. According to the United States
Department of State’s INCSR 2001, during the first half of 2000, 6
cases fell under the purview of the 1999 Act and in not one case was
the mandatory minimum sentence imposed.
several European countries, such as Germany, Switzerland, and the United
Kingdom, drug policy is implemented at the regional level, resulting in
a diverse system throughout the country. Many of these alternative
policies are relatively new and require more time to evaluate their
effectiveness. Nevertheless, the trend throughout Europe continues to be
a relaxation of criminal penalties for minor drug offenses and an
increase in penalties for trafficking, while improving treatment and
harm reduction. According to Dutch authorities, harm reduction measures
have resulted in significantly lowering their HIV infection rate and
drug-related death rate. Unless time shows that these alternative
policies have failed, Europe will continue to look toward
decriminalization, harm reduction, treatment, and increased trafficking
penalties to combat its current drug problems.
1 In Belgium private drug use is not an offense,
unless it occurs within a group. In Ireland and the United Kingdom, drug
use becomes an offense only in reference to prepared opium.
2 Current EU member nations are: Austria, Belgium,
Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg,
the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
3 The 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs
places international control on more than 116 narcotic drugs. The 1971
U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances was designed to create a
universal control on psychotropic substances, or mood-altering synthetic
substances. The 1988 U.N. Convention against Illicit Trafficking in
Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances was designed to combat trafficking
in illicit substances.
4 Under the concept of the separation of markets, the
Dutch Government is attempting to separate the hard drug market from the
soft drug market to prevent soft drug users from interacting with hard
5 Coffeeshop restrictions include a limit of no more
than 5 grams sold to a person at any one time, no alcohol or hard drugs,
no minors, no advertising, and the shop must not cause a nuisance.
6 Similar regulations are contained in Scotland’s
Proceeds of Crime Act 1995, the Criminal Law (Consolidation) Scotland
Act 1995, and Northern Ireland’s Proceeds of Crime Order 1996.
7 Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, substances are
divided into 3 classes, A, B, and C. Class A substances are those
considered to be the most dangerous, including opiates, cocaine,
Ecstasy, and LSD. Class B substances are considered to be less dangerous
and include cannabis, sedatives, less potent opiates, and synthetic
stimulants. Class C substances are the least regulated and include
tranquilizers and some less potent stimulants.
|This report was prepared by the DEA
Intelligence Division, Office of International Intelligence, Europe,
Asia, Africa Strategic Unit. The report reflects information prior
to February 2002. Comments and requests for copies are welcome and
may be directed to the Intelligence Production Unit, Intelligence
Division, DEA Headquarters, at (202) 307-8726.