EU Civil Society Forum on Drugs Calls For More Inclusion

EU Civil Society Forum on Drugs Calls For More Inclusion

The Civil Society Forum on Drugs (CSF), an expert group of the European Commission with more than forty members representing leading European NGOs, held its annual plenary meeting in Brussels last week. The Forum has become an important voice, but it needs more inclusion and funding from EU institutions.

The Forum, chaired by Maria Phelan (Harm Reduction International) and Fay Watson (EURAD) is a diverse group of NGOs representing different fields, regions and ideological approaches. It has four working groups. The first, led by Marie Nougier from the International Drug Policy Consortium, is the biggest and busiest. It coordinates institutional relations with the EU – that is, it feeds into the discussions at the Horizontal Working Party on Drugs (HDG), the monthy decision-making forum of the EU Council, where all member states represent themselves. This twenty-member working group has submitted several papers to the HDG, and its recommendations were reflected in the EU’s position at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in April, 2016.

The fact that the EU has championed the cause of abolishing the death penalty, as well as harm reduction and access to essential medicines, was partly the result of the intensive advocacy efforts of the CSF, which continues to provide advice to EU member states, both in implementing the UNGASS outcome document, and in preparing for the next big global UN drug policy meeting in 2019. The group is calling for more emphasis on public health, human rights and civil society participation. Issues such as the legal regulation of drugs divide the Forum, which is an ideologically-diverse group of NGOs.

Another important issue recently targeted by CSF’s advocacy is that of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. The Forum has written to the HDG, asking the EU to send a strong message to stop the massacre and to withdraw any EU funding that might be used to sponsor human rights violations.

The Forum’s second working group, chaired by David Liddle from the Scottish Drug Policy Forum, is focussed on promoting minimum quality standards for demand- and harm-reduction interventions in the EU. Last year, the Forum produced a report on this issue, which was recognised by the Council Conclusions on minimum quality standards. Although the EQUS minimum quality standards have been adopted by the EU, the level of their implementation in member states is poor – hampered by the lack of sustainability, education and training, as well as inadequate collaboration between NGOs and public authorities. Next year, the working group will produce four discussion papers around four key populations: women, young people at risk, ageing drug users and migrants/refugees.

The third working group, chaired by Marcus Keane, from the Ana Liffey Drug Project in Ireland, focusses on civil society involvement in member states. This group conducted an online survey on civil society involvement among NGOs in Europe – 119 responses were received from 32 countries. What we have now is raw data, but the group is working to produce a paper which will highlight the findings. This paper can then be used as an advocacy tool for more meaningful, structured and formal involvement of civil society in decision-making.

The fourth group, chaired by myself (Rights Reporter Foundation), works on the evaluation of the EU drug strategy and action plan. This year, the EU is carrying out the mid-term evaluation of its drug strategy (2013-20) and final evaluation of the first action plan (2013-16). The Commission contracted an external evaluator (EY-Rand). The working group prepared an evaluation report in the summer, and this has been one of the main sources used by the external evaluators. The report confirmed that the EU Action Plan on Drugs represents significant added value, but noted that there are barriers to its implementation in member states – in particular, a lack of adequate funding for the listed actions. Among the dire consequences of this inadequacy of funding, are service closures, and increasing rates of hepatitis and HIV infections among drug users. The Commission is now working on the assessment report and the draft of the new Action Plan – our working group will provide recommendations. The draft of the next action plan will be published in March, and will then be discussed by the European Parliament.

The CSF had a joint meeting with the HDG on Tuesday afternoon, where civil society representatives and member states discussed key issues, such as the implementation of the UNGASS outcome document, the situation in the Philippines, minimum quality standards, and the new Action Plan on Drugs, which will be adopted during the next, Maltese, EU presidency.

The plenary meeting of the Forum was hosted by the drug coordination unit of the European Commission, which now forms part of the home department, and has recently changed its name from “Anti-Drug Unit” to “Organised Crime and Drug Policy Unit”. According to Floriana Sipala, the head of the unit, merging the drug and organised crime units will not affect the Commission’s balanced and evidence-based approach to drug policy.  The small budget the EC allocates to drug policy, however, is a sign that this area is not currently a political priority. This year, the Commission launched a call for grant applications, but only 2 million euros are available – enough to fund at most four or five international projects. This is a significant decrease, when compared with the Drug Prevention and Information Program, a grant scheme which was abolished in 2013.

Altough the CSF is an offically registered expert group which is mentioned by the EU Action Plan on Drugs, it does not have observer status at the HDG, so its inclusion is not regular, and it has no stable funding. The Commission has limited funding, sufficient to cover one plenary meeting and one core group meeting each year – but there is no funding to pay for coordination/communication between meetings, or to compensate the work of CSF members. To solve this problem, the CSF this year submitted an application to the European Commission’s Directorate-General Justice for an operational grant. The funding application decisions will be announced in February.

Posted by Peter Sarosi