EMCDDA: Europe's cities offer valuable observation window on new drug trends

26 June: International day against drug abuse and illicit trafficking

Drug problems often emerge, and are most acutely felt, in urban environments, making Europe’s cities a valuable observation window on new drug trends. In its latest report — released today ahead of International day against drug abuse and illicit trafficking (26 June)the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) looks at drugs in cities across Europe, revealing how some cities are developing drug strategies of their own (1).

The European Union is one of the most urbanised areas in the world and its cities are set to become more densely populated. Currently 73 % of the EU’s population resides in cities and this is projected to increase to 82 % (or 30 million new residents) by 2050 (2). The new EMCDDA analysis, Drugs policy and the city in Europe, shows how modern cities play host to a diverse set of drug using populations and related health, social and security problems. The report identifies 10 European capitals with a dedicated drug strategy: Berlin, Bucharest, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Lisbon, Madrid, Prague, Stockholm, Vienna and Warsaw (Figure 2).

EMCDDA Director Wolfgang Götz says: ‘As European cities expand and change, we see the drug problems found in them also evolving. It is within cities that new problems first become visible and we increasingly see innovative policies and measures developing. I believe there is considerable scope for European cities to share their experiences and to learn from each other in this challenging policy area.’

The report, which looks at established and emerging drug problems, focuses on four topics: urban spaces and drug use; businesses and recreational drug use; city-level drug policies; and coordinating and funding city-level policies.

Urban spaces and drug use: Eight capital cities report current ‘open drug scenes’ (Figure 1), which can vary from the ‘concentrated’ (up to hundreds of users per day) to the ‘dispersed’ (multiple smaller gatherings), with many fluctuating from one type to the other. Despite these variations, common features exist, namely: the presence of polydrug use (often involving heroin, prescription medications and alcohol); health issues linked to injecting (infection with HIV and hepatitis B and C viruses, discarded injecting materials); and problems relating to congregations of users (criminality, public nuisance). The report explores some of the responses currently used, including: needle- and syringe-exchange programmes; drop-in centres; drug consumption rooms (3); and measures to reduce drug-related litter (e.g. sharp bins, needle-exchange machines).

Businesses and recreational drug use: Cities contain a high density of premises where psychoactive substances are sold and consumed. Frequently, specific areas exist where many of these businesses are clustered together. This can give rise to zones where drug use and intoxication are tolerated, if not accepted. Given the diversity of the drug problems found in such areas, a spectrum of responses is being implemented. These range from prevention and harm-reduction initiatives in recreational settings (e.g. information campaigns, pill-testing) to legislative measures targeting new psychoactive substances and street-based outlets for their sale.

City-level drug policies: The report defines city-level policies as ‘measures taken by local policy actors to address all or some aspects of drug problems in a specific urban location’. It finds that city-level drug strategies frequently mirror the focus of national and regional level documents (Berlin, Helsinki, Lisbon, Madrid, Stockholm, Vienna, Warsaw). Other cities, however, adopt a more thematic approach, addressing specific issues such as: open drug scenes (Copenhagen, Oslo); antisocial behaviour (Dublin) and crack cocaine (London, Paris). Elsewhere (Brussels, Riga, Vilnius), drug issues are included in other city-level strategic documents, such as those focusing on crime or public health. Dedicated local drug monitoring systems exist in some cities, while others use ad hoc methods to monitor drug use.

Coordinating and funding city-level policies: The paper looks at some of the drug coordination arrangements found in European cities. Generally, city authorities are formally responsible for the coordination of city-level drug policy, in some cases, this being established by law (Helsinki, Madrid, Warsaw). Some cities have dedicated drug policy units (Helsinki, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Stockholm, Vienna), while others address drug issues via generic policy units (e.g. London). Officially appointed ‘city drug coordinators’ exist in some capitals (Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Warsaw). Where no formal coordination structures exist at city level, national-, regional- or local-level structures are responsible for strategy implementation (Ankara, Bratislava, Bucharest, Dublin). A number of Europe’s capitals have dedicated drug strategy budgets that fund entire agencies or services provided by agencies. The available expenditure figures range from EUR 6.5 million in Berlin to EUR 29.4 million in Madrid in 2011.

Concluding, Wolfgang Götz says: ‘Today, data on drug use at city level are gathered from a variety of sources, with new information emerging from frontline services, hospital emergency departments and wastewater analysis networks. This allows us to gain a more up-to-date view of the state of drug problems at this level and to evaluate the effectiveness of drug policies and responses’(4).