The tragic consequences of illegal drug use may be less visible than in the past, but they are still there, warns EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel.
Three words summarize the current drug problem in Europe: Everywhere, Everything, Everyone.
To explain, drugs are readily available in large quantities, almost anything can be a drug, because the lines between legal and illegal substances are blurred, and anyone can be affected, directly or indirectly. This combination threatens to set off a perfect storm of increasing substance use and dependence in the coming years.
Therefore, the EMCDDA director thinks it would be a big mistake for EU governments, struggling to keep public finances in check after the COVID-19 pandemic, to view drug prevention and treatment programs as an easy target for cost-cutting. Austerity would hit the most socially and economically vulnerable the hardest. This would lead to even more personal tragedies and even more costs to society, whether treating mental health problems or tackling criminal activities such as drug production and trafficking.
Instead, he points out that we need to step up our existing efforts, invest in prevention programs and link drug, mental health and social policies, rather than treating them as separate responses. We also need to see drugs in a new light. With more and more substances entering the market, the old stereotype of people injecting heroin on the street no longer reflects the reality or the problems facing our societies.
The world is indeed very different from when it was EMCDDA first opened its doors in Lisbon in 1995. Their focus and work is constantly adapting to the changing landscape and patterns of drug use. In the beginning, their sole mission was to be an information provider: to develop the methodologies and networks for collecting and analyzing key data – largely lacking at the time – for policy makers. With strong input from national drug control centres, other EU agencies and international partners, that mission has been successfully accomplished and continues to do so. But now seems to be evaluating the role from information provider to a more proactive service provider.
Over the years, new avenues have been explored in innovative monitoring methods to shed light on evolving drug patterns. These range from macro to micro: identifying new synthetic and psychoactive substances and changes in cannabis use to analyzing wastewater in individual European cities or syringe residues in needle exchange programs to detect the latest drug habits.
The EMCDDA's approach to the European drug problem is increasingly twofold. First, to better understand the impact of long-term trends on public health and safety. Second, to detect new threats faster so that decision-makers can improve their preparedness and response.
What does the EMCDDA do?
The agency helps European and national policy makers, professionals and practitioners in the field to address the causes and consequences of drug use. It does this by providing factual, objective, reliable and comparable European data as the basis for their decisions. We work within the framework of the European Union's carefully balanced drug policy, with its strategy and action plan. These reflect the EU's fundamental values of human and fundamental rights and a belief in consensus, discussion and scientific evidence as the building blocks for policy.
The European Commission recently proposed to give the agency a more important role in analyzing current and future threats from illicit drugs in the EU. This followed an independent external evaluation that recognized the agency as a center of scientific excellence, both in Europe and international, and recommended that the remit of the EMCDDA be expanded.
That decision rests with the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. Whatever they decide, the ultimate goal of the EMCDDA remains the same: to maximize efforts to protect the public and contribute to a healthier and safer Europe.