Minimizing Harm and Risks: Harm Reduction in the Context of the Liberal Market

PRESS RELEASE

Brussels, February 23, 2021

Around 269 million people used drugs worldwide in 2018, which is 30 per cent more than in 2009, and over 35 million people suffer from drug use disorders, according to the latest World Drug Report, released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2020. While more than a trillion dollars spent was fighting the war on drugs, there is no evidence that the global drug problem was reduced, for some countries, largely developing or transitional countries, it even worsened. The same trend is evident when dealing with addictions across substances and behaviours, including alcohol, tobacco and problem gambling.

The webinar „Minimizing Harm and Risks: How to Support Citizen Health in the Liberal Market” was held by MEP Alexandr Vondra (ECR, CZ) and organized by the Institute for Rational Drug Policies (IRAP), Europe’s front-running NGO with an outstanding track record in the field of addictions. The participating experts and policy-makers have offered views on public health decision-making and Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan. They stressed the importance of a rational, balanced approach to regulatory measures, integrated drug policies and the essential role of minimizing risks / managing the negative impact of the addictive behaviour. The so-called harm reduction is a holistic and complex approach that is cost-effective, evidence-based and has a positive impact on the health of the individual and the community as a whole.

“We as legislators are expected to carefully consider how to create, if necessary, a rational regulatory strategy for products with dependency potential. Wherever we identify an existing problem, regulation, together with other measures, should primarily aim at minimizing the risks. We must always seek balance, not extremes,” said MEP Vondra. “ If, for example, an extremely regulated substance such as cannabis proves to be less risky then previously considered, there is no reason to keep such regulation in place – such a rigid approach results in much more damage in the long run and reduces people’s confidence in the legal system,” MEP Vondra added.

Drugs destroy people, but bad politics even more so, said Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, in 2018. „History has shown that prohibitions and bans do not work. The war on drugs is futile and costly,“ said Jindřich Vobořil, head of IRAP and former Czech National Drug Coordinator. “The illegal environment is also characterized by the questionable quality of substances because quality or standardization cannot be enforced; thereby endangering life.” Mr Vobořil noted that border and other restrictions

linked to the covid-19 pandemic have already caused shortages of drugs on the street, leading to increased prices and reduced purity.

“The free market has its risks, just as over-regulation creates other risks due to the strengthening black market or organized crime. This applies to substance dependence, whether on legal or illicit substances, as well as non-substance addiction such as gambling,” noted MEP Vondra. “Are we ready to face the challenges of gambling and the treatment for pathological gamblers at the EU level? Unlike tobacco, which is extremely regulated, almost nothing is happening at the EU level in this field. The same could be said about the prevention of social, health and safety effects of hazardous alcohol use.”

The fragmented approach to various addiction issues is reflected in the European Commission and its fragmented individual agendas. The current situation does not allow an effective solution to drug policies and it is hardly cost-effective. From this perspective, t question remains whether the European Commission structures are not out-dated. Would it not be appropriate and effective to integrate these policies, too?

To change the dynamics of the EU decision-making, the European Parliament must play its role according to Molly Christine Meacher, Baroness Meacher, a UK House of Lords peer. “There is a need for MEPs who are committed to harm reduction to get together and produce a report on just how strong the evidence is,” Baroness Meacher said. During the debate, MEP Pietro Fiocchi (ECR, IT) doubted the European Commission’s EU Cancer Plan proposal. “I am not in agreement on the Commission’s document concerning harm reduction. Especially the fact that the Commission puts traditional cigarettes on the same level as tobacco and vaping products. We all agree that we should not start smoking, but if you’re smoking and you move to vaping, there is an enormous benefit to the population,” said MEP Fiocchi.

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