Spain takes a prohibition view on substance use

While the UN and a growing number of countries recognize that the war on drugs is lost, the government is set to introduce tougher sanctions

Uruguay is the only country to have fully legalized marijuana.
Uruguay is the only country to have fully legalized marijuana.Matilde Campodonico (AP)

On December 10, the Uruguayan Senate approved a new law regulating the production, distribution and sale of marijuana. In doing so, the South American country has become the first nation to legalize the substance. Over the coming months, much attention will be paid to this novel approach to dealing with drug use, and the first instance in half a century that a country has dared to challenge the orthodoxy laid down by the United States and most European nations in this regard. That said, even in the United States there are changes afoot, albeit at regional level: since January 1, the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes has been legal in the state of Colorado; later this year, similar legislation will come into effect in the state of Washington. New York is also considering the move.

But Spain, which two decades ago had some of the most relaxed drug legislation in the world, is now firmly headed in the opposite direction. As part of a raft of controversial measures under its so-called Citizen Safety Law, the government is now proposing to triple the minimum fine for possession of drugs in public as well as banning the cultivation of marijuana plants for personal use - despite private consumption remaining legal. The possibility of waiving fines in exchange for undergoing treatment is also to be withdrawn.

It is now 43 years since disgraced US President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs, announcing in 1971 that consumption of illegal substances was a "national emergency" and the country's "public enemy number one." He set aside millions of dollars to increase the number of organizations to combat drug use, which acted not just at home but also throughout the Americas and the rest of the world. More than four decades on, as with Prohibition in the 1920s, the policy has proved a disaster: few people would deny that the war was lost a long time ago, and that despite continued astronomical spending and the use of the armed forces and other resources, addiction levels, trafficking and violence related to drugs continue to rise, or at best have leveled off.

Countless reports and research have confirmed this over the years, the most recent being the UN's Global Commission on Drugs Policy, published in 2011, which marked a turning point in international recognition not only of the failure of the war on drugs, but also of the collateral damage it has caused around the world. With contributions from writers, experts, and politicians such as Javier Solana, Kofi Annan, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and George Shultz, the report called on governments to try new approaches including the legal regulation of drugs, particularly cannabis, "to safeguard the health and security of the people."

It is now 43 years since President Nixon declared war on drugs

Which poses the question as to why Spain has decided to move in the opposite direction of global opinions that now increasingly lean toward dealing with drug use from a damage-limitation perspective, instead opting to increase fines while depriving users of the chance to seek treatment.

"The government is swimming against the tide. We are returning to concepts from the middle of the last century that are being abandoned in the civilized world," says Araceli Manjón-Cabeza, a former director general of Spain's National Drugs Plan. "Eliminating the possibility of participating in a detox or rehab program puts us in the same league as countries like Russia, where anybody who consumes drugs is immediately considered a criminal," she says.

Manjón, who also served for two years as an investigating magistrate in the High Court, "where the biggest drug trafficking trials are held," says that her experience there turned her from a supporter of prohibition, to one of the most vocal proponents of a sea change in policy. "Working from the position of prohibition gave me a privileged outlook. I had absolutely no idea of what was really going on, until finally I realized that we were spending huge sums of money and dedicating vast amounts of time and energy to this issue, and achieving absolutely nothing positive in return." She says that she is now, "broadly speaking," in favor of legalizing all drugs, "but this doesn't mean an open house." EL PAÍS contacted the current head of the National Drugs Plan, but has so far received no reply.

There is a growing chorus of voices around the world calling for a change in drugs policy. In the wake of Uruguay's bold move to legalize marijuana at least eight other countries in Latin America are now either considering decriminalizing the personal consumption of the substance, or contemplating an across-the-board legalization of all drugs. In May, the Organization of American States (OAS) announced that it was considering approving legalization as the best way to halt the violence associated with drug trafficking on the continent, which over the last two decades has left tens of thousands dead in Colombia and Mexico. Even before Colorado's move, in the United States some 17 states had already approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, allowing the substance to be bought from registered suppliers with a doctor's prescription.

We are returning to concepts from the middle of the last century"

Meanwhile, in the rest of Europe, other countries are also considering relaxing their approach to drugs. Switzerland has already decriminalized possession for personal use. In November the local council of Kreutzberg, a fashionable central neighborhood in the German capital of Berlin, approved a motion to open Dutch-style coffee shops in the Görlitzer park, an area that has long been associated with drug dealing. In December, 106 German law academics, among them the former head of the Federal Court, signed a petition in support of the decriminalization of marijuana and other substances. In March, in Denmark, Copenhagen City Hall announced that it intends to begin a three-year pilot project that would see the municipal authorities take over the production and distribution of cannabis.

In Belgium it is now permitted to carry up to three grams of marijuana, or have a plant at home for personal use. In 2001, Portugal became the first country in Europe to decriminalize the use and possession of all illegal drugs. More than a decade later, drug use has increased slightly, along the lines of growth in other European countries. But importantly, consumption of heroin has decreased — which was the main aim of the Portuguese authorities in introducing the legislation — and with it the number of prosecutions.

"It has been shown incontrovertibly that sanctions do not reduce drug consumption," says Carmen Martínez, the secretary of UNAD, the Union of Help Associations and Entities for Drug Addicts. "It is never too late for addicts to turn away from drugs, this is shown on a daily basis, and they should not be pursued unless help is offered. Imposing fines has also been proven to be meaningless, because most of these people are unable to pay them."

Manjón says that the government's move is an effort to block initiatives in Catalonia and the Basque Country, where the regional parliaments have set up commissions to look into initially regulating the use of marijuana through private associations of users and growers. "Banning the cultivation of marijuana plants would be a death blow to these associations," says Manjón.

It has been shown that sanctions do not reduce consumption

Jaume Xaus, the National Federation of Cannabis Users spokesman, agrees: "This is not about pursuing traffickers, but blocking initiatives that civil society has come up with. They are trying to put a spanner in the works." The Interior Ministry, which has not bothered to consult cannabis associations, NGOs or charities that work with drug addicts, seems set to bring an end to the current legal limbo. Aside from imposing fines of up to 30,000 euros for "plantations that do not constitute a crime," the new law would also allow for measures such as "the suspension or closure of clubs" where drugs are being consumed, as well as the "withdrawal of authorizations, permits and licenses." Current legislation does not allow for fines to be imposed on people growing a plant at home.

If the police want to bring a prosecution against somebody for growing marijuana, a judge must then decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether a crime has been committed. Meanwhile, the Catalan regional executive says that it intends to press ahead with its efforts to regulate marijuana use, and is currently drafting a "good practice code" that would allow the existence of cannabis associations, despite any new prohibition legislation that the central government might introduce. The Interior Ministry meanwhile denies that the proposed ban on growing marijuana is a tool to close down consumer and growers' associations.

Regarding the increase in fines, the interior ministry says: "1,000 euros in 2014 is not a significantly higher amount to the 300-euro fine of 1992." Similarly, it argues that the reason for ending the policy of offering drug users the chance to avoid paying a fine by undergoing treatment is that it "has proved unproductive in terms of the goals of social integration pursued." This would seem to run counter to the evidence in many countries around the world showing that governments save money and benefit society overall when they invest in health and integration programs for drug addicts rather than spending the money on policing and enforcing the law. Report after report shows that countries that have developed damage reduction strategies (syringe collection, assistance, rehab programs, etc.) have much lower HIV rates.

For example, in Australia, only two percent of registered drug addicts are HIV positive; in Russia, where there is no damage limitation policy and drug users face prison, the figure is 35 percent. Another important factor that has now been established is that the decision to start taking drugs has much more to do with social and economic factors, fashions or peer-group pressure, than with permissive laws.

According to the European Union's 2013 Report on Drugs, at least 85 million adults, a quarter of the bloc's adult population, have taken some kind of illegal drug at least once in their lives. Of these, 77 million say that drug was cannabis. Of the estimated 250 million drug users in the world, the UN says that only 10 percent can reasonably be described as addicts or "problematic." In Spain, the most recent report on drug use, from 2011, shows that alcohol, heroin and cannabis use have all stabilized, and that cocaine use has fallen.

Manjón believes that neither the data nor the current situation justify the government's proposed crackdown. "This has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with politics," she says. "The global trend is toward legalization, or at the very least toward a more humane and coherent approach to the issue."

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