MCN speaks to Maja Kohek of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies about education, policy and harm reduction.
The European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), formerly the European NGO Council on Drugs and Development, is an NGO network dedicated to broadening education and advocating for reasonable, evidence-based drug policy across the EU.
Executive Committee Member Maja Kohek tells MCN about ENCOD’s work and the need for data-driven regulation.
Why was ENCOD founded and what are its key goals?
In 1993, following the request of the European Commission, 14 organisations working in the field of drugs founded the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies. Over the following two decades, ENCOD grew into a platform of 150 members, organisations, companies and citizens who want to end the war on drugs. Through lobbying, actions and the distribution of information, we have strengthened their voice at the United Nations, the EU and on the national and local level. Another main goal of ENCOD is to promote harm reduction for people who use drugs (PWUD).
What changes would you like to see made to the EU’s drug policies?
The EU needs a fair and humanised drug policy, which does not stigmatise PWUD; and which permits responsible, non-problematic use of drugs by adults. Policymakers must acknowledge that there is not a binary dynamic of abstinence or addiction; there are many nuances in between. Citizens must receive education from a young age, free of stigmatisation, fear and lies.
Should the EU take a more standardised approach in setting and enforcing policy on medical cannabis?
The EU should propose recommendations after serious and neutral research, but not necessarily impose full obligations on its Member States – unfortunately, however, pharma lobbies have a very strong influence in these decisions.
This is the same issue as with the EU’s conventions, which are not obligatory, although many countries take them to be. Often these conventions neglect to take into account a country’s particular national situation and choose a conservative or prohibitionist approach in drug policy. Experimental approaches – which are often encouraged within the conventions – are practised on rare occasions.
Within the European Union each Member State has the autonomy to address drug policy issues according to its particular regulatory situation. For example, Spanish (and especially Catalan) authorities tolerate cannabis social clubs (CSCs) in the same way that the Netherlands tolerates coffee shops, although the current drug laws in both countries are still prohibitionist. By looking closer into these two examples we could learn a lot about the implications of similar practices for other countries. Spain and the Netherlands are known worldwide as havens for cannabis users and consequently cannabis tourism; and we can see from data gathered in these two countries that certain theories – including the idea that decriminalisation leads to increased cannabis use among youth and the image of cannabis as a gateway drug – just do not hold water. However, the heightened exposure of a few countries where cannabis users feel safe and welcomed also exercises a lot of pressure on them.
Cannabis was, is and will continue to be used by people. That is a fact. The ‘just say no’ approach is not working, as we have learned in the past half century. It is time to make peace with it and start developing laws and approaches that will truly be effective in terms of public health and respect basic human rights. The role of the EU could be to encourage experimental drug policies in other countries of the Union.
What are the benefits of cannabis social clubs as a means of controlling the production and consumption of legalised cannabis?
A cannabis social club is an officially registered non-profit association. It is democratically organised and has a collective agreement to cultivate cannabis for the personal consumption of its members, within an enclosed social circle. The CSC shares cannabis among its members for more or less immediate consumption. The members must be previous users of legal age; and cannabis originating within the CSC cannot be passed on to third parties. CSCs are characterised by transparency, democracy and non-profitability.
CSCs emerged from the necessity of avoiding the harms derived from the illicit markets. They represent a way to separate the cannabis market from other substances, as in the case of coffee shops. The key difference between the two is that CSCs are non-profit organisations and accessible just for members.
The advantages offered by CSCs are numerous. A CSC is a closed circle of self-organised members who grow, process, distribute and use cannabis among themselves: in this way, the users supply themselves to avoid the black market and contact with criminal groups. Because they are motivated primarily by self-supply rather than profit, they are more likely to ensure good quality of product without contaminants and at fair prices.
Another advantage of CSCs is that they create a community of users for support, information and harm reduction. It is a group of people with plenty of expertise and knowledge about the plant, its uses, its potential harm, and best suited to support each other in case of need.
Last but not least, CSCs represent a great opportunity – a ‘playground for scientists’ – to conduct new innovative research into recreational use of cannabis.
As cannabis becomes more widely accepted in a growing number of Member States, should EU policymakers be better educated on the scientific background of the medical applications of cannabis? How could this be achieved?
They certainly should be better educated – not only on the medical application of cannabis, but on the plant in general. New scientific research has to be taken into account and decisions should be taken based on clinical evidence, not on old stereotypes and judgements, involving the civil society, NGOs, medical users and other professionals or stakeholders from the field in the discussion and taking into account different perspectives.
The European Commission recently paused all Novel Food applications for CBD and hemp products, as it is considering recategorising CBD as a narcotic extract rather than as a food. What are the potential impacts of this decision on cannabis producers and consumers in the EU?
CBD has never been a narcotic as a single substance. It is not psychoactive. The situation with cannabis sativa L is that the plant is being separated to its single substances and those obviously should be treated differently than the plant as a whole. For more information please see www.researchgate.net/publication/343768923_CBD_as_a_’narcotic’_Food_for_thought.
How should cannabinoids be regulated: as food supplements, as narcotics or as pharmaceuticals?
Cannabinoids should be regulated as what they are:
- If they are added to food, then they are food supplements;
- If they are consumed as ‘narcotic drugs’ (where THC is present), they are narcotics; and
- If they are used to treat sick people and are prescribed by a doctor, they are pharmaceuticals: this mostly applies to synthetic cannabinoids.
We should also rethink how to regulate the cannabis plant, not only individual cannabinoids. Do we want to treat people as adults who are capable of making informed and responsible choices or do we infantilise them? Can a plant be illegal? We see the cannabis plant as a heritage of humankind.
Executive Committee Member
European Coalition for Just and Effective