DEA Drug Intelligence Brief


Drug 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.



While 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. 5

In 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 contract.

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.

In 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 option.

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.


Removing 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.


Maximum Trafficking Penalties*
20 years
10 years
10 years
15 years
20 years
Lifelong forced labor
The Netherlands
16 years
21 years
25 years
23 years
18 years
20 years
United Kingdom
* 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 to life
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**
1996 &1999
‘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 9 months
United Kingdom
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
* An 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.


In 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 drugs.

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.

Category: Drug Trends