EU drugs chief: ‘US now looks to Europe on decriminalisation’

Alexis Goosdeel (R) [European Commission]

The internet provides a vast marketplace for new dangerous substances and drug prevention authorities risk being left in the wake of dealers and distributors, warned the head of the EMCDDA, Alexis Goosdeel. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Alexis Goosdeel is director of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

Goosdeel spoke with euractiv.de’s Nicole Sagener.

The EMCDDA’s annual report on drug use in Europe has warned that the consumption of synthetic drugs with unknown side-effects among young people is increasing. What drugs are we talking about here?

That differs from country to country, both in terms of the age of the consumer and the type of drug. Our research shows, though, that more and more young people are taking MDMA. But, while MDMA used to be a staple of the techno scene, its consumption outside of clubs and parties is on the up. That makes it more difficult to control.

MDMA is, according to studies, one of the most popular “party drugs”. Behind speed, it is the most consumed drug on the techno-dance scene. Why are these substances being used more?

Synthetic drugs, because of their chemistry, have a lot of potential, allowing a small amount of drug to be used to create a huge number of doses. Often, the synthetic substances come from China and India and there are more and more laboratories in Europe. For a number of years, shipping containers have been used to smuggle drugs into Europe and the US. Systematically checking this is difficult, but thankfully not all of them have managed to find a market.

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Fatal overdoses are on the up in some countries. What drugs are in question and which countries are affected?

The numbers are increasing particularly in Ireland, the UK, Finland and other European countries, like France. But we do not know the cause. What we do know is that in 18 of the 28 member states, more people are dying after taking opioids and heroin. The question remains: where are they coming from? One of the most widely-held suspicions is that methadon, intended for use in treating addiction, is finding its way onto the black market. In some of these countries, methadon isn’t used over fears of misuse or misappropriation. I think that the standards in this area are pretty high and we have no evidence to suggest that this type of treatment is going badly. Toxicological analysis has shown though that overdoses often occur because of a combination of several substances.

According to the report, in 2015 alone, 98 new psychoactive substances were in circulation in Europe. That means that there are more than 560 such drugs on the market that have an unknown effect on health. There have been warnings that consumers could even be used as guinea pigs for a new generation of synthetic drugs. What can be done politically?

It’s a complex issue, because both producers and the consumers are changing. But the mere fact that many producers and dealers are pushing new drugs with unknown health risks on consumers is enough to be of concern. Manufacturers are also expanding their client base by going online. In the member states, there are a number of initiatives and NGOs that run prevention programmes and trawl the internet in search of drug peddlers. For those who take drugs regularly, buying them through traditional means is becoming more rare.

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Research has shown that the internet and social media are playing an increasingly large role.

Yes, the internet is becoming the market place. Online platforms contribute to finding new consumers. People talk about their experiences taking the drugs and some groups encourage the practice. The main problem is that we are always one step behind the dealers.

Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avrampopoulos has responded to the findings of the report by calling on internet providers to address the problem. But what can actually be done?

It is indeed a difficult challenge. Young people, so-called digital natives, communicate differently to the older generations. So how we used to warn people and carry out prevention is no longer as important. We have to reach people who regularly make purchases online and we have to make them aware of the effects and risks of taking these substances.

There’s no magic bullet though. But in some cases, we can certainly identify cases where drugs are sold. In order to help, internet providers have to, in principle, handle the issue the same way in which they deal with weapons or pornography. The Commissioner’s initiative, to analyse the situation, to consult with experts from the member states and to foster information exchange between countries, is an important step. The internet has no borders.

Of course, further measures are going to be needed. In places where drugs are taken, even small measures like making sure enough water is available in clubs are important. Ecstasy, MDMA and other designer drugs can lead to extreme dehydration.

Would you say that Europe’s drug policy is lacking?

I wouldn’t actually. At the moment, we have 28 countries that cooperate pretty well when new substances enter circulation. Collecting and providing this kind of information is important. Two or three decades ago, we didn’t even have that.

We’ve also had a number of successes: Europe has expanded the ways in which drug treatment can be carried out and the number of HIV infections has decreased. The US now looks to Europe when it considers how to decriminalise drug use. We’ve increasingly moved towards a model where young people aren’t imprisoned because they took drugs.

What would be the next step, politically?

The goal is to develop an early-warning system for new substances. The Commission is working in cooperation with the member states on this as we speak. Exchanging information on usage, toxicology and strategy is paramount. Europe is the only region in the world that has collected enough data over the last 20 years to develop different future strategies.

What is important to remember though is that drugs are changing. We have to analyse and assess the situation, so that we can predict what problems are waiting for us in the future and decide how we can begin to tackle them.