Last November, US voters didn’t just choose their next president. In several states, they also voted on legalising marijuana. Four - California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine - gave the drug the green light for recreational use, following the examples of Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Further afield, Uruguay has already legalised recreational use, while Canada has announced plans to do so in the coming months.
The Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is carefully monitoring the liberalising trend which could in time have a major impact on the European market, and national drug policies.
The centre’s director, Alexis Goosdeel, explains, "A topic of growing importance and interest for decision makers in Europe is what is taking place outside Europe where cannabis drugs policy is concerned. The first challenge for Europeans is to understand exactly what is happening, because a lot of biased information is circulating. Our role is to provide objective, neutral and independent information."
The agency began providing that factual data to key policymakers last year through a news alert system, with a link to its website, within three weeks of any significant cannabis policy developments occurring outside Europe. The service already has clients in the EU institutions, national drug observatories and the agency’s own management board and scientific committee. Plans are afoot to extend its reach to others, such as the Committee of the Regions and national decision makers.
The news alerts are an example of how Goosdeel, who took up the five-year post as director of the Lisbon agency in January 2016, is looking to reshape its traditional role as an information provider of regular reports and a website into a more proactive service provider.
Traditional activities continue to improve policymakers’ understanding of the drugs market, but new techniques are added. As well as more established sources, data are now collected from urban wastewater and hospital accident and emergency departments. As Goosdeel explains, "They give you two complementary views of a situation that is becoming more and more interesting and needed."
In addition, impetus is being given to recalibrating the agency’s activities. Last December, its management board adopted a new strategy driving its work up to 2025 and a roadmap identifying some top-level milestones for the next five years. The overall aim is to contribute to a healthier and more secure Europe, building on the agency’s four core values: scientific excellence, integrity and impartiality, customer focus and service orientation, and efficiency and sustainability.
Portuguese Socialist MEP Ana Gomes, who led a European Parliament delegation to the agency last summer, emphasises the important role the agency plays now and can play in the future. "It makes a major contribution to our understanding of the way the drugs business works through factors such as supply and demand, the routes and measures used and the changing nature of the illegal substances," she says.
As a member of Parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs (LIBE) committee, which has general oversight of the agency, she points to the clear connections between crime and drugs, emphasising that the high standard of data the agency produces should be used as widely as possible.
"This is a crucial agency for the EU and I wish we made better use of the work it does. I feel other stakeholders do not understand the tremendous input it can make. There should be better interaction with health professionals, law enforcement bodies and policy makers so they use the data it collects," says Gomes.
2017 presents an opportunity for that wider cooperation. In January, the drugs agency took over the chairmanship of the network of nine EU justice and home affairs agencies, such as Europol, Eurojust and Frontex. The network’s common theme this year is the expanding influence of the internet in this area - a development the Lisbon agency was one of the first to identify with publication of its report on the online drug market in early 2016.
That partnership, according to Goosdeel, makes it possible to bring together information collected from different perspectives and competences to create "a more concrete, pragmatic and comprehensive picture of what the challenges are".
While acknowledging the overall importance of the European Parliament, with its budgetary, policy making and oversight responsibilities, in the agency’s work and the specific "excellent cooperation" that exists with the LIBE committee, Goosdeel sees scope for a similar widening of contacts, particularly on public health issues, with the assembly’s environment committee.
As the drug phenomenon continues to throw up new challenges, Goosdeel repeats the message he delivered at the United Nations special session on drugs last year. "We Europeans must learn lessons from what we have done in the past 30 years so we can react better and faster to future challenges. When the next wave comes with its specific risks and danger to health and security, we must not again lose five or ten years before finally agreeing what to do."