The European Commission recently adopted a new Drugs Action Plan, marking the launch of the first of two implementation phases of the EU's anti-drug strategy for 2004 - 2012. But will it help?
The EU wants people to just say no
It's midday at Café Pauke. Almost all the tables are occupied, and the waiters have their hands full. Most of the guests are workers from the nearby offices on their lunch break. It's also a popular haunt with students, drawn by a menu that's cheaper but better than what's on offer in their university canteen.
Little seems to set the café apart from all the other bistros in Bonn, but there's one crucial difference: from the cooks to the waiters, all the staff are former drug addicts.
A run-away success
Karl-Heinz Bitzer is the manager of Pauke's drop-in counselling service. He's a former drug user himself. Today, he gives advice to people seeking to overcome addiction. His services are in such demand, he even has to turn people away.
"We have unbelievably long waiting lists," he explained. "Applicants for our in-house therapy have to wait up to six months."
The therapy and employment programs provided by Pauke are precisely what the EU wants to see more of.
Tackling drug abuse
In mid-February, the European Commission outlined a plan that set out an EU strategy to combat the increasing problems caused by drug trafficking and drug use.
The first-phase strategy for 2005-2008 is based on a multi-disciplinary approach that foresees reducing demand and supply and steps up the fight against international drug traffickers.
The action plan gives a timetable for a set of measures to be carried out at EU level by member states, in cooperation with third countries.
It includes general policy measures, specific programs aimed at the prevention of drug use among young people, in the workplace and in recreational settings, as well as measures for improving access to treatment programs, both for drug use and drug-related illness.
Still a widespread problem
The action plan is based on the results of an annual report published by the European Monitoring Center for Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in Lisbon. According to the study, drugs claimed fewer lives in 2004, but some two million people in Europe still have a problem with drug addiction.
Roland Simon, who worked on the EMCDDA report, believes the action plan is definitely a step in the right direction.
"I feel the plan has a very sound basis," he explained. "It's a very sensible idea to provide prevention and treatment for people who experiment with drug consumption before they slide too deep into addiction."
Moving away from criminalization
One of the main problems support schemes face is financing. The only projects eligible for EU funding are those that promote Europe-wide cooperation. That means that an initiative such as Pauke has to depend on national or even district funding. In times of economic gloom, these subsidies are the first to feel the pinch.
Even so, Roland Simon is convinced a pan-European drug policy makes sense.
"The advantage of a unified policy," he said, "is that you can combine targets and develop a common approach that can be pursued on a European-wide level."
The approach that forms the cornerstone of the Action Plan is that drug addicts are seen as people suffering from an illness rather than criminals. Instead of putting them behind bars, the plan is to refer them to organizations such as Pauke and help them return to normal life.
Karl-Heinz Bitzer also welcomes the EU's new strategy.
"We're very glad to see that in the last five years there's been a move away from criminalizing drug users," he said. "There's greater tolerance of addiction and much better support structures."