Bill Nelles doesn't fit the stereotype of a European drug addict. A 44-year-old graduate of the London School of Economics, he works as a senior manager in Britain's National Health Service and sings tenor in two choirs; he's partial to Elizabethan madrigals. But, like his friends the doctor, the lawyer and the social worker—and millions of other Western Europeans—Nelles needs his drug fix. As a schoolboy in Canada, he started dabbling in pot and LSD. A friend introduced him to morphine, and by 23, he was addicted to opiates. Detox programs didn't take, and the few times he scored heroin on the street "terrified'' him, he says. So in 1977 he moved to London, where sympathetic doctors can legally prescribe certain opiates. He now takes 40 methadone tablets daily. His habit, Nelles says, is simply a chronic medical condition. "I don't want to be judged because of a medication I take," he says over coffee in his suburban London kitchen. "One can have a normal life and take drugs."
More and more Europeans are doing just that. Strong economies, porous borders and a dance culture fueled on pills mean that many illegal drugs are cheaper, purer and more prevalent than a decade ago. National drug surveys show that more than half of all Britons and Irish between 18 and 24 have experimented with illegal drugs, as have a third of French 15- to 19-year-olds. Though Europe's heroin use has generally fallen, Spain, Britain, Portugal and Ireland are facing serious problems with it. Cocaine use in Britain trebled between 1996 and 1998, and according to a survey out this month, more than 99 percent of London's banknotes bear traces of the drug. U.S. drug use has fallen by half since 1979; in Europe, it's risen overall during the 1990s. U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who visits Europe this week to talk policy, told NEWSWEEK: "We've got a terrible problem that's getting better. [The Europeans] have a terrible problem that's getting worse."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair agrees. Last month he told reporters he was "petrified" of his children's getting involved with drugs, and then announced tough measures to fight drug-related crime. Nothing new in a tough line on drug enforcement: the Americans have been doing it for years. But Europe's tactics for coping with drugs are changing, and so are public attitudes to them. You're not going to hear about it from national politicians, but drugs are being normalized. It's a quiet affair, carried out by local mayors and police and millions of Europeans who regularly break laws on weekends by taking drugs. Drug users and counselors are banding together to create a "safe drug culture"—for kids who take a hit of ecstasy on the dance floor and for long-term addicts like Nelles. Courts are quietly handing down precedent-setting decisions and loosening up on drug sentencing, and Europe's policymakers are speaking sotto voce about pragmatism instead of prosecution. With the exception of Sweden, which continues a hard-line policy on users and dealers, Europe isn't waging a U.S.-style war on drugs. It's shifted to a guerrilla operation against their effects. For many Europeans, the "zero tolerance" strategy seems as quaint as the American temperance crusades of the 1920s. "Prohibition didn't cut the number of alcoholics—and lifting it didn't increase them," says Bonn's Police Chief Dierk-Henning Schnitzler. "Only the Mafia got big. The same is true with drugs today."
In today's Europe, drugs are everywhere. For the majority of European drug users, cannabis, either grown in the Netherlands or imported from Pakistan, Thailand, Colombia and Turkey, remains the high of choice. Heroin arrives via Turkey and the Balkans; importers quickly and efficiently switched smuggling routes during the Kosovo war. And with cocaine use falling in the United States, Latin American dealers are targeting Europe as a new market. "Sure, a society without drugs would be wonderful," says Nicole Maestracci, director of France's Interministerial Mission Against Drugs and Addiction. "But nobody believes it exists anymore." So "harm reduction"—pragmatically coping with the social fallout of drug use—has replaced eradication as the strategy buzzword.
The dream of a drug-free Europe may have died for good on the dance floor. Ecstasy's popularity in the early '90s rave and club scenes introduced a new generation of Europeans to drugs. At clubs and raves—the all-night dance parties held in fields or abandoned buildings—E-vogues changed as quickly as musical tastes. The "doves" of the early '90s competed with the pink calis, which later gave way to the ecstasy pill of the moment, known as the Mitsubishi. Ecstasy, speed, cocaine and, later, other recreational drugs like the animal anesthetic Ketamine, or "Special K," became standard gear. Criminologist Dirk Korf of the University of Amsterdam estimates that at many Western European clubs, one in four weekend patrons is on ecstasy.
"Drugs are simply part of our culture," says Steve Du Boil, a 25-year-old British electrician. "We've grown up with them. I wouldn't go to a party without taking pills." Recreational users can access information on the effects of drugs on Internet sites like Ravesafe or the German-language Drogen-Online. "Culturally, there's been a big shift since ecstasy," says Danny Kushlick, director of the U.K. pro-legalization group Transform. "With its arrival on the scene, drug use was seen to be relatively safe. It was seen as something normal. It was about love, instead of degradation."
That is a key point. Younger Europeans typically are less interested in "dropout" drugs like heroin than in euphoric ones perceived as giving you a good night out—ecstasy, speed or cocaine. And for all the clubbers who do the new-style recreational drugs every weekend, there are relatively few casualties: according to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the chance of dying from taking ecstasy is less than one in a million. But what worries health officials is the new culture of polyconsumption. Weekend users, emboldened by experiments with cannabis, ecstasy or speed, are now starting to mix and match their drugs of choice. Dealers are selling more than one drug, encouraging their clients to take what one drug sociologist calls "the supermarket approach." "Drugs are being thought about in a whole new way," says Lauren Laniel of the Paris-based l'Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues. "In the past, people took drugs for self-discovery. Now you take a hit of acid before a football match. What we're seeing develop is a consumerist relationship to drug use."
Springing up to educate these consumers are safe-rave groups. Some are funded by governments or the European Commission; all are intent on creating a safe drug culture by passing on information about illicit substances. Clubs in Amsterdam and Hamburg hand out cheery postcards on the side effects of ecstasy. On weekends peer counselors from Unity, an Amsterdam-based prevention project partially funded by the EC, head out to raves. Working under the motto "Just Say Know," armed with glow-in-the-dark pamphlet racks and psychedelic cushions to build a "chill out" area, they answer dancers' questions about uppers, downers and wideners. The program's based on realism, says Unity counselor Vivian Schipper. "Experimentation is often part of being young and curious. If it's a phase, it's not dangerous."
It's not just clubbers who have helped normalize drug use. Courts and politicians are starting to listen to hard-drug users and addicts lobbying for their rights. When Germany's Gerhard Schroder came to office last fall, he shifted the country's Drugs Commissioner office from the Interior Ministry—which deals with law enforcement—to the Health Ministry. "Consumers of drugs are not criminals and should be exempt from criminal prosecution," Germany's Drugs Commissioner Christa Nickels announced. "Addiction is a disease and not a crime." In some parts of the country, recreational-drug use is no longer prosecuted. A 1994 court ruling allows local governments to sanction drug possession for "personal use." Granted, "personal use" varies from region to region: in law-and-order Bavaria, possessing marijuana can get you a jail sentence, while in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, courts won't prosecute people for holding 30 grams of marijuana, 3 grams of cocaine or a gram of heroin.
France is loosening up, too. Like Germany, it had long taken a hard line on addiction; now French policymakers are advising judges not to imprison nondealing users. They've also told police not to arrest addicts—a radical change in a country where, just a few years ago, police were arresting drug users at the needle-exchange buses that patrolled French city streets. A Swiss court went one step farther: it overturned a prison sentence given to a Bern man convicted of selling 1,000 ecstasy pills. The ruling found that this "soft drug" is used mostly by "socially integrated people" and "doesn't lead to criminal behavior."
It's the Swiss—along with the Dutch—who have become champions of harm reduction. Faced with spiraling heroin problems in Zurich and Bern, the Swiss did what the British had done until a generation ago: they started giving heroin to addicts on prescription. The experiment started in 1994; last year, heroin prescriptions for addicts became legal. Now the Dutch and Germans have started experimental heroin programs, and Spain is thinking about similar trials. The Dutch decriminalized the use of cannabis in 1976. A few years later, licensed "coffee shops" began selling pot and hash. More recently, "Smart Shops" have sprung up in the Netherlands, selling mind wideners like magic mushrooms, herbal ecstasy and cultivated hash seeds with names like Master Kush. The Dutch distinction between "hard" drugs, which are illegal, and "soft" drugs, which are not legal but tolerated, serves as a model for Europe's would- be liberalizers. Marijuana, maintain the Dutch, isn't necessarily a stepping stone to harder drugs. "Everyone starts out life drinking milk," says Fedde Visser, an Amsterdam heroin addict, with a grin. "It doesn't mean you'll end up an alcoholic."
Some police and politicians are starting to agree—up to a point. When the Paris-based medical group Medecins du Monde launched Rave Mission, a drug-testing and information service, the cops wouldn't cooperate. Now they no longer crack down on raves: at a recent one in Calvados, the local prefect was so impressed by Rave Mission's work that he distributed free mineral water. "The order of the day is no longer suppression," says Rave Mission's Gregoire Serikoff. "The policy of repression is finished." In Germany, doctors and social workers have started the drug-information group Eve & Rave. At this summer's Love Parade, Berlin's annual technofest, Eve & Rave staff tended dancers who had bad trips, and social workers dispensed legal advice and kits to check ecstasy tablets and amphetamines for purity. A few years ago such a group would have been strictly lunatic fringe. Today the German Health Ministry has asked Eve & Rave to design a plan for pill-testing at parties. "We have to stop shutting our eyes and make drugs safer for the consumer," says Tibor Harrach, a Berlin pharmacist and expert for the group's drug-testing program. "As long as drugs remain underground, anything can be in a pill."
Europe may not be waging an all-out War on Drugs, but there's still a raging battle between the pro- and anti-legalization camps. Despite their growing support for the decriminalization of cannabis, few Europeans back legalization of hard drugs like heroin. Even the liberal Swiss rejected the decriminalization of all drugs by 3-1 in a referendum this spring. The new, borderless Europe has the anti-legalization camp worried about drug tourism. The Dutch, under fire in recent years from Sweden, Germany and France, have had to dial back on liberal policies: until a few years ago, coffee-shop customers could buy 30 grams of hash by law; today they can buy only five. And the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has started a new rapid-reaction program for synthetic drugs. Researchers keep up with the latest drug trends in clubs, study the substances scientifically and then the EU member states decide whether to ban them.
And yet some drug users are beginning to act more like citizens than criminals. In Europe, as in Asia, Australia and the United States, they've formed unions to lobby for everything from clean needles to employment rights, and self-help groups to spread the word on everything from bad junk in the neighborhood to the dangers of hepatitis C. In Denmark, the Users' Union organizes mountain-biking expeditions for the addicts. Junkiebond, a users' union in Rotterdam, has a program to help addicts earn their fix money by sweeping streets or painting houses. The same group is set to open a retirement home for aging junkies.
In France, a users' support group called the Association for the Safety of Drug Users (ASUD) puts out street-smart pamphlets featuring Bloodi, a cartoon junkie in a yellow Mohawk, a syringe tucked behind his ear like a pencil, who gives advice: "Disinfect the vein you have chosen for your fix," he says. "The best way is to use a tampon with alcohol." ASUD gets $50,000 a year from the French Ministry of Health. Britain's drug czar Keith Hellawell has begun harnessing the knowledge of former drug users by getting them to work with addicts in prisons—a step that would have been seen as too radical a few years ago, he says. Heroin addict Joergen Kjaer is president of Denmark's Drug Users' Union, which receives its 1.2 million kroner budget from the Ministry of Social Affairs and the city of Copenhagen. Along with government ministers, Kjaer is a member of the country's Narcotics Council. When he shows up for debates on TV or social-work meetings in a jacket and tie, people are shocked: "They expect me to be skinny and look like a thief, because that's what the stereotype of a junkie is." Kjaer, and his fellow pro-legalization activists, may not ever see a Europe where all drugs are legal. But they are witnessing—and participating in—a slow-burn social change. Does it make sense? Come back in 10 years.
[Via Newsweek International, November 1, 1999]