In 2012 Diogenis Association took the initiative to set up a project on Drug Law reform in South East Europe. In cooperation with the organisations of the drug policy network in South East Europe and researchers affiliated with researches institutes and law faculties of universities in South East European countries, a research has been carried out that resulted in the publication “Drug policy and Drug Legislation in South East Europe”.
The motive for this project was the idea that in the development of drug policy in the SEE countries, civil society involvement must play a positive and decisive role. Non-governmental actors in the field of drugs have to have a say in shaping drug policy and to exercise influence on drug Legislation.
Some characteristics of the situation of drug policy and drug legislation in the countries of South Eastern Europe are presented in this study followed by recommendations. They can be summarized in the following points.
a. There is a discrepancy between adopted drug strategies and their implementation in every day practice
All SEE countries have adopted a National Strategy during the last decade. The majority of them have also adopted Action Plans for the implementation of the Strategy. According to the national strategy of all SEE countries, NGOs and civil society should play an important and active role in policy making, mainly in the field of treatment and rehabilitation, but also in harm reduction. The actual involvement of civil society and NGOs is, however, rather marginal, although efforts are made to improve it. In practice there is a gap between strategies and practice. Harm reduction is accepted in de drug strategies but is not enshrined in national legislation; harm reduction services are appreciated, but they are financially dependent on grants of external donors; rehabilitation programmes are recognized as essential part of drug policy, but they have still to be developed.
It is pointed out that strategies and action plans must be evaluated and practices that are not effective have to be changed. Most of the countries do not have yet formal evaluation mechanisms. Evaluation will help the relevant authorities to make changes where necessary and introduce innovative practices that meet the needs of those concerned.
b. The application of criminal law is harsh for drug trafficking and in cases of drug possession for personal use is diverse and often inconsistent.
Criminal Justice systems of South Eastern European (SEE) countries are based on different traditions and the response to the drug issue proves diversified. Deviations are wider in the area of smaller-scale violations of drug laws, while penalties envisaged for drug trafficking have more common characteristics being extremely harsh. In several countries however, regardless of the strict scope of legal provisions, the penalties actually imposed by courts are less stringent.
In general, SEE countries could be described as indecisive on issues regarding decriminalization of possession of drugs for personal use. This is an extremely crucial issue in the further development of drug policy, since this issue usually deeply affects the lenient or harsh treatment of the user-perpetrators within the criminal justice system. Decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use is heavily discussed, but several attempts to introduce it in national legislation has failed. Further research and study of the current practice concerning possession for personal use, must be a priority in the future agenda of the countries of the region, in order to relieve the criminal justice and the penitentiary, system.
c. The prison population over the last years has increased; the living conditions are poor and there is increasing drug use in prisons; medical care inside prisons is inadequate.
For the majority of the countries, the living conditions in detention facilities are very bad because prisons are overcrowded. This is a common problem and a general endemic characteristic of the correctional systems of the majority of the countries.
The problem of drug-use in prisons emerges clearly through the national reports. There is diversity in the provision of treatment programmes for drug dependent prisoners. Medical care inside prison is provided for all prisoners by medical staff while help from other medical institutions and NGO programs can be provided only outside the prison. It is possible to divert drug users from prison into community-based treatment for drug addicted perpetrators of drug-related offences, though diversion mechanisms combined with treatment programmes (suspension of penal prosecution, execution of the sentence/probation/ conditional release from prison) are currently implemented on a very limited scale.
d. There is support for alternatives to incarceration of drug offenders.
All relevant stakeholders support alternative measures to incarceration of drug offenders. They are convinced that alternative measures will result in a reduction of incarceration and minimization of the negative consequences of criminal prosecution and short-term prison sentences to drug addicted persons. However, social re-integration programmes are almost absent. For the majority of the SEE countries, the strategy for social reintegration can be characterized as either incoherent or only nominal and there seems to be a long way to go for the implementation of such policy. Consistency requires that a policy in favour of alternative measures to incarceration needs to be followed by implementation in practice.
e. Relevant authorities and state recognized agencies and service providers are reserved towards drug law reform proposals, while NGOs are in favour
The relevant national authorities and the state recognized agencies and service providers are cautious in their reactions concerning proposals for policy change. Reform proposals are very often considered to be contrary to the international conventions. Governments and parliaments are making use of the room that exists in the international conventions to introduce new ways of facing the problem, but they are hesitant to speak about reform of the current drug control system.
NGOs express clearly the wish for reform in several areas, especially the decriminalization of possession for personal use and the wish to enshrine harm reduction services in the national legislation. For the intravenous drug users, supervised drug consumption rooms are considered as necessary prevention measure to avoid the spread of HIV. NGOs are, however, concerned about the general attitude of the public that is reserved towards decriminalization.
f. The economic crisis is a real threat for treatment and harm reduction services
Although in most cases, especially in recent years, governments assisted by NGOs have made great progress in broadening their harm-reduction policies and the services offered to drug users, obstacles mainly related to the lack of financial resources –and, to a degree, to a culture of mistrust and phobic societies– have greatly suppressed programs and initiatives for needle and syringe exchange and the establishment of supervised drug consumption rooms. The shift of interest towards this direction is, however, a particularly important development which will greatly influence developments in drug policy in SEE, especially under the effect of the wider relevant European policy.
Under the burden of the economic crisis, treatment and harm reduction services –along with the health issue in general, medical & pharmaceutical care and other social benefits– is pushed in the margins of central policy, while the severe reduction of funds seems to already have a dramatic impact. Most of the SEE countries now face an unpredictable future on financing treatment and harm reduction programs, as many are (or were) sponsored by the Global Fund, while most are no longer eligible to receive new funding. If National governments are not going to finance these services most of them may cease to function due to lack of resources.
g. Cannabis production and use is dominant in all countries of the region.
Cannabis cultivation and use is dominant in all the SEE counties. Large quantities of cannabis plants are detected, uprooted and confiscated by the law-enforcement authorities. At the same time there is little debate about cannabis reform. Initiatives in some countries in the region have not resulted in serious political consideration of the issue.
h. Unbalanced Spending of Financial resources
Broadly speaking, the available resources for drug supply reduction and drug demand reduction is not balanced. The national strategies present a comprehensive view in which the elements to reduce drug demand and supply of drugs are balanced. However, in practice there are difficulties in implementing this balanced approach. Some say that this is due to lack of budgetary resources. Others point out that it is a question of priorities and policy orientation. Lack of human resources and financial support for treatment programs is a significant issue; it is necessary to allocate increasing amounts of money from the state budget for treatment services provided to drug users.
Thanasis Apostolou has studied at the University of Athens and the university of Amsterdam, has worked as staff member of the institute “Kerk en Wereld”, in Driebergen, Netherlands (1972-1976) and the Orthodox Academy of Crete (1976-1977). He was director of the Centre for migrant workers from the Mediterranean sea in Utrecht, Netherlands (1977-1989), has been member of the Dutch Parliament for the labour party (1989-2002) and has worked as consultant on drug issues (2002-2010). He is director of Association Diogenis (2010-today).