Selected issue 1
European drug policies: extended beyond illicit drugs?


It has been noted in several publications (e.g. EMCDDA, 2004; Zobel et al., 2004) that the scope of drug strategies in EU Member States, originally confined to illicit drugs, is increasingly being extended to encompass a variety of psychoactive substances and even behaviours that might engender some sort of addiction. For example, drug strategies in both France and Germany consider all drugs, both licit and illicit.

At EU level, although both the EU drugs strategy (2005–2012), which was adopted at the end of 2004 by the Council of the European Union, and the EU drugs action plan 2005–2008, endorsed by the Council in June 2005, are directed at illicit drugs, both mention the combined use of illegal and legal psychoactive substances.

The EU drugs strategy makes clear its expectations in the area of demand reduction: ‘Drug demand reduction must take into account the health-related and social problems caused by the use of illegal psychoactive substances and poly-drug use in association with legal psychoactive substances such as tobacco, alcohol and medicines’. Furthermore, one of the more than 80 actions of the EU action plan 2005–2008 states that Member States should ensure that ‘comprehensive effective and evaluated prevention programmes on both licit and illicit psychoactive substances, as well as poly-drug use, are included in school curricula or are implemented as widely as possible’.

The previous European Union drugs strategy (2000–2004) (1), adopted in 1999, also made it very clear that prevention of drug abuse should address both licit and illicit drugs, emphasising the need for national preventative actions and strategies to address risk behaviour and addiction in general, and including not only illegal drugs but also alcohol, tobacco, medicines and substances used for doping in sports.

At the same time, both basic and clinical scientific research is increasingly addressing the issue of addiction and addictive behaviour, irrespective of substance, accompanied by increasing recognition of the need to match treatment options with clients’ profiles and patterns of use. For instance, Ehrenberg (1998) has pointed out that previous distinctions between the roles of alcohol, illicit drugs and psychotropic medicines are slowly vanishing: a growing body of research has identified that psychoactive substances are used for various reasons, irrespective of their legal status; for example, medicines may be used to ‘get high’, whereas heroin may be consumed to cope with psychiatric disorders or cocaine to improve sporting performance. According to Ehrenberg, framing the issue according to the legal status of drugs and their stereotypical functions/purposes (psychotropic medicines to care, illegal drugs to have fun or to escape from reality, legal drugs to socialise, etc.) is no longer relevant and more research is needed on the reasons for, and the public health impact of, the growing use of a wider range of psychoactive products, whether legal or illegal, in modern society.

It would appear, then, to be interesting to launch a more in-depth analysis of national drugs strategies or policies that aim to draw attention to all substances or to addictive behaviours.

This selected issue on policies extending beyond illicit substances aims to present a first insight into an emerging phenomenon. It has three objectives:

  • To clarify which countries in the EU have adopted a wider approach in their drug strategies/policies, beyond illicit drugs, in particular which areas (substances and/or disorders) have been addressed and by which measures and to what extent. Special attention is given to the official aspects of drugs policies, analysing the drug strategies and/or action plans and their normative/cognitive framework.

  • To understand the rationale behind this broadening of scope of drug strategies/policies.

  • To identify the potential repercussions of an expanded drug strategy, at operational level, on drugs services, responsible bodies and their competences.

Twenty-five Member States, as well as Romania and Norway, responded to a request for information, providing a good insight into the current European situation.

As the dataset comprised national strategies and action plan documents, the absence of such documents at national federal level led to some problems. Italy, Malta and Austria are not considered in this report as they do not have a national drugs strategy. However, to maximise the relevance of the analysis, references to the reports from these countries are included where relevant.

The in-depth analysis of the reports presented below reveals that, although illicit drugs strategies do not always refer explicitly to licit drugs or addictions, prevention programmes and, in some countries, treatment measures apply to both licit and illicit drugs, and usually give priority to children and young people.

(1)  European Union drugs strategy 2000–04. Cordrogue 64 Rev 3 (12555/3/99), 01.12.1999.