The goal of balanced drug policy was revealed to be more rhetoric than reality with the release of the first set of national profiles on drug-related public expenditure by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
The profiles detail drug-related government expenditures in 30 European countries, finding that on average, spending on law enforcement and public safety greatly outpaced spending on health. Even in countries that position themselves as pioneers of harm reduction and drug treatment, the accounting shows how much policing and punishment are still the priority in Europe’s approach to drugs. In the UK for example, spending on public order and safety was 61 percent of the total drug budget—compared to only 13 percent on health. Belgium reported spending 62 percent of its drug budget on law enforcement, but less than one percent on harm reduction services. Sweden reportedly spent less than a single percent of its budget on harm reduction. Some countries like Austria, Poland, and Romania haven’t even bothered to report figures on their national drug strategies.
As numerous Open Society Foundations partners have detailed in the “Count the Costs” campaigns in Eurasia and Western Europe alike, the drug war is exacting a terrible toll in terms of prisoners taken, productivity destroyed, and people stigmatized and criminalized. The EMCDDA’s summary helps to show the link between these outcomes and national budgets that emphasize too many arrests, too little treatment and counseling, and not enough access to clean needles. Law enforcement will always be part of a balanced approach, but it must not be disproportionately prioritized over support for health-based interventions that can stop HIV infection and help drug users make positive change. Health services not only work better than prisons in many instances, but are cheaper.
For the many countries looking to the EU for pragmatic leadership in drug strategy, this money trail leads to an ugly conclusion: the “punish and control” model is alive and well. European countries have ample evidence that health approaches to drug problems work. Now, they need to fund them.