Drug use in Europe still a major threat to public health

Message from Wolfgang Götz, EMCDDA Director ahead of International day against drug abuse and illicit trafficking (26 June)

Drug use in Europe still represents a major threat to public health and is responsible for between 7 000 and 8 000 fatal overdoses every year in the EU. Europe’s drugs problem is also changing, with more problems now associated with the use of stimulant drugs, such as cocaine, and new substances increasingly appearing on the European market.

Preventing drug use and offering effective treatment to those with substance use problems are central pillars of Europe’s response to drugs. A key achievement since the 1990s has been the scaling up of care for drug users. Today, at least 1 million people in the EU receive some form of treatment for drug problems per year. And between 50 and 100 million clean needles and syringes are exchanged or distributed to drug injectors in the EU annually. Such measures have been linked to both a reduction in new drug-related HIV infections and an overall decline in levels of injecting drug use.

These improvements have not only been quantitative but also qualitative. Interventions today have a stronger evidence base than in the past and evaluation has become a core element of drug policy in many countries. This is also the case at EU level where the EU drug strategy 2005–12 is currently undergoing an external evaluation. The EMCDDA will contribute to this assessment with a trend report showing the main changes over this period in the drug situation and in Member States’ interventions.

These developments also reflect the increased focus on public health in European drug policies. One example of this shift is Portugal, whose drug policy has attracted significant attention in recent years both in the media and in policy debates. Portugal’s case study illustrates how it took many years of action against an ongoing severe drugs problem to develop a new drug policy model. While commentators have focused on its controversial decriminalisation of drug use, it should be noted that this is just one element of Portugal’s comprehensive public-health oriented policy. Today this model comes under the spotlight in a new EMCDDA series of Drug policy profiles outlining the development and characteristics of national drug policies in Europe and elsewhere in the world (https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/drug-policy-profiles/portugal).

We are continually reminded of the complexity of the drugs phenomenon and that there is no single solution to all of the challenges it presents. We should acknowledge the importance of developing innovative responses and evaluating them thoroughly. Without such an approach, many of the interventions which are today at the heart of our drug policies would simply not exist.