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The Problems of Drug Criminalization in Greece – The need for a New Approach

The issue of drugs is not a new one in Greece. Although it has troubled Greek society since the late 1970s, a political initiative was not taken until the 1990s when the political scene assisted in the establishment of an organisation which would assist those in need. However, approximately a decade after the establishing of the first institutions, it was widely accepted that the core of the problem was the Greek national policy against drugs. The inability of the policy to address the issue of drugs caused the drafting of a new plan, which would tackle the issue appropriately. The new strategy would decriminalise drugs and increase funding for harm minimisation methods. Despite the rather warm welcome the policy had from the public, the conservative parties of Greece stood firm against its proposal, which lead to its rejection in August 2011 when it was first raised in parliament. Nonetheless, this was not the end of the much promising strategy as in May 2012, with the change of government, a small “window” of opportunity was opened and it is now expected to be voted on by the end of 2012. The old strategy had many limitations, only the main of which will be explored. The old drug policy exacerbated the problem of racial discrimination in Greece, forcing minorities to feel excluded and targeted by the social system. It did not accommodate for the wellbeing of drugs users and general public. On the contrary, it forced the promotion of dangerous and unhealthy practices. It increased tensions in the relations with neighboring countries while it increased dramatically the rates of both economic and systemic crime. It diminished the civil liberties of Greeks and operated as a conductor for corruption.

The constant dramatic picture that the reports of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) had been presenting since 2002, in conjunction with the publication of negative essays by OKANA, which in Greek is the acronym for Organization Against Drugs, created a momentum, which brought the drafting of a new national strategy against drugs in Greece. The previous, punitive drug policy had a “tough on drugs” approach and was highly police-centered. As a result, the imprisoned population rose with explosive rates, reaching an outrageous 40% of the people behind bars to be charged on drug charges (doc.tv, 2011). The problematic incarceration ratio and the numerous weaknesses of the old drug policy; which will be explored later in detail, forced the Ministry of Justice to take a very different approach. The continuous consultation of OKANA, colored the draft with opinion and insights of a plethora of experts including criminologists, sociologists, psychologists, doctors and social workers (ΟΚΑΝΑ, 2012). According to the new legislation, the use of drugs will be completely decriminalized, whilst the purchasing, the possession and the growing of cannabis on amounts which can only excuse personal use will be downgraded to a misdemeanor (Press Time, 2012). Whilst the new legislation cares and “goes easy” on drug users, it is harsh on the “Big Fish” who supply death for profit and endanger the well being of the public (Παπαιωαννου, 2011). The Minister of Justice, Mr. Roupakiotis, also said that the new national policy on drugs will provide to those who are already convicted on use and possession of drugs. He said that the extensive amount of money that will be saved from the narcotics police will be invested on the treatment of those who use drugs problematically and seek help (Η Αυγή, 2012). At the same time, despite the financial difficulties, funding will increase for the free distribution of condoms and needle and syringe kits. With the old drug policy, similar programs existed as well. However, they were seriously underfunded and were only provided by OKANA’s “street workers”. The new legislation would increase funding to OKANA and provide condoms, as well as needle and syringe kits to police officers for distribution (Παπαδόπουλος, 2011).

The newly drafted legislation is a much more promising one. It is reasonable to Political Bankruptcy wonder why this strategy was not implemented in 2011, when it was first introduced to the Greek parliament. The story behind this shows the political bankruptcy and abjection, which exists in Greece and demonstrates the reasons which have brought the nation to the state of desperation that it is today. In August 2011, the former Minister of Justice, under the government of the PanHellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), Mr. Papaioannou, introduced the drafted legislation to the parliament, where he was the recipient of heavy criticism, especially from the two conservative, right-wing parties: New Democracy (ND) and the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) (Press Time, 2012). This started a rather fierce debate with all three parties presenting different perspectives. In November of 2011, when the PASOK government fell, due to the loss of legitimacy over the austerity measures (Παπαδοπουλος, 2012). The result was that a government of national unity was formulated, in which the three parties agreed to provide members to comprise the new government. The three contributing parties were the three main parties of the parliament at the time: PASOK, ND and LAOS (skai.gr, 2011). Mr. Papaioannou, a PASOK member, was in the new government as well and continued to push for his new policy against drugs and met the same resistance by the other two participating parties in government. The resistance was so intense that LAOS threatened to withdraw its support from the new government, in essence causing another government to fall again in less than two months. In fear that the government might be lead to another political dead-end, the proposed legislation was “put aside” in December 2011. A few months later, at the programmed public elections, a new government was formed and Mr. Roupakiotis was sworn as the new Minister of Justice under the newly elected ND government (Υπουργός – ΒΙΟΓΡΑΦΙΚΟ ΣΗΜΕΙΩΜΑ, 2012). Mr. Roupakiotis, who had always been in favor of the decriminalization of drugs, despite his party’s conservative views, reintroduced the proposed legislation by Mr. Papaioannou without any modifications. This move of Roupakiotis ensured that the ND government would not reject the legislation again as it would be introduced by a member of their administration this time around. Moreover, PASOK, which had always been in favor of the decriminalization of drugs, was supporting Roupakiotis’ move and the new national strategy against drugs will, more than likely, be voted-in by the end of 2012.

The Problems of Criminalisation     The previous drug policy of Greece, similarly to most drug prohibiting policies around the world, was characterized by disadvantages and limitations, which were rather counter-productive. Although there are many tribulations with drug criminalization, in the section that follows, the most problematic issues will be explored.

The prohibition of drugs in Greece has caused social discrimination and exclusion of migrant minorities. This is not a trend noticed only in the European region. Drug policies worldwide have criminalized substances, which are predominantly consumed by the relatively powerless social groups (Mustro, 1999). However, in the Greek context, it comes as no surprise that the word xenophobia derives from ancient Greek. Xenophobia translates to the “fear of the foreign”, a phenomenon, which has highly been exacerbated in the landscape of the economic depression that surrounds the county. Immigrants have been used as a political scapegoat upon which many of the reasons for the country’s current situation have been “thrown”. This is portrayed through the country’s national strategy of dealing with drugs. The overwhelming 93.4% of drug-users in Greece are Greek nationals, whereas only 6.6% were of non-European countries (REITOX, 2011, p. 62). However, despite this vast difference and the use of drugs predominately by the Greeks, members of minority groups are far more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and processed through the criminal justice system (PoliceNET, 2008). The argument exists that the policy is not biased; rather minority communities and lower socio-economic classes in general are characterized by high criminality (Ελληνική Αστυνομία, 2011). As Douglas Husak describes such circumstances ‘drugs are more devastating in neighborhoods where people are struggling’ (2002, p. 136). Even under the assumption that this might be the case, minorities still feel “targeted” by the policy. When the “response” against the 6.6% is more “immediate” than the response towards the 93.4%, then a perception emerges that immigrants are punished for what locals are allowed to do; strengthening, emphasizing and reinforcing the dichotomy between Greeks and migrants. This perception creates disrespect and mistrust towards the criminal justice system and government authorities. The state has a responsibility to show that it does not condone such bias and owes to remove all feelings of mistrust and disrespect since such emotions fragment the social structure of Greece. By decriminalizing the use of drugs and removing the prohibitions that surround it, the Greek government will be taking a major leap towards eradicating racism from the criminal justice system and repairing all prejudiced and negative perspectives minorities have towards state mechanisms.

The prohibition of drug-use raises a plethora of health issues, which endangers the wellbeing of not only users but non-users as well. The rates of drug-related deaths in Greece have steadily decreased. In specific, in 2010, 153 people lost their lives directly from the use of drugs (2011, p. 77). Nevertheless, these numbers increase significantly, if we include deaths by HAV, HBV, HCV and HIV/AIDS (REITOX, 2011, p. 68). Within both categories exist crucial benefits and advantages, which urge the decriminalization of process. The main problematic aspect of the first category, the 153 drug-induced deaths, is the issue of purity. From the 153 drug-induced deaths, 98 of them were from the use of heroin (REITOX, 2011, p. 78). Carney et al argues ‘despite its popular image as a drug of destruction, heroin is almost without toxicity in its pure form’ (1991, p. 3). The criminal charges that apply to the mere use of drugs have established an underground drug market, which is unknown how deep it spreads in the Greek society as well as the European community (Duyne, 2005). The illicit drug-market has a catastrophic impact on the health of drug users as they cannot have confidence in the quality of what they are buying. As Douglas Husak writes, ‘even sellers rarely know the exact contents of the substances they distribute’ and more often than not ‘street drugs contain deadly impurities’ which can rather easily “distribute” overdose death (p. 137). Admittedly, this argument lies on the legalization side of this debate, meaning that not only the use would need to be decriminalized but the production and sale of drugs as well; something which is not the contention of this analyses. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the issue of purity is a vital one, especially when considering that the drugs trafficked, in underground markets, are subject to no quality controls. Furthermore, the old drug policy of Greece forced users to do drugs in ways, which can only be labeled, as dangerous. Injecting substances increases the risk of accidental death as well as the ‘dangers of spreading the AIDS virus, HIV, by sharing needles’ (Carney, 1991, p. 3). The free provision of syringes and needles, as well as condoms, could not only prevent but also control the spreading of such diseases, not only amongst the drug-using population, but also the general public. Husak writes that ‘researchers have consistently found that needle and syringe exchange programs reduce HIV transmission among those who inject drugs, as well as their sexual partners and children’ (2002, p. 137). The needle-sharing practices of drug users constitute a constant threat in any country’s public health (Authority, 1989). ‘International Organizations including the World Health Organization and the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS have strongly supported the developments of such programs throughout the world’ (Husak, 2002, p. 137). Unlike some countries around the world, who deny the development of such programs, Greece was on the front line of this battle. Nevertheless, the fiscal crisis has resulted in cuts on funding allowing the further spreading of these diseases. Whilst decriminalization is essential, the new strategy needs to increase funding of such programs to put an end to the spreading of aforementioned killer-diseases.

There is no doubt that the issue of drugs is an international problem and for that reason any worthy solution can arrive only through international co-operation. Many countries around the world work side by side to provide decisive answers to the common issue that troubles their societies. Characteristic examples of this are the relationships of the United States with most countries of South America as well as the relations of the EU with all its member states. Similarly the foreign policies of Greece with its neighboring countries are affected by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) suggest that for the year 2009, 28.95% of the seized quantity of heroin derived from Turkey (European Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2011). Meanwhile, the newly established state of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) witnesses the dramatic expansion of heroin trade (BBC News, 2012). At the same time, 70.2% of the seized raw cannabis is of Albanian origin and is transported into Greece both by land and sea (European Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2011). It is thus imperative that the drug policy of Greece is one, which does not have a detrimental effect on its foreign affairs. Over the years, Greece has had a very negative history with Turkey, FYROM and Albania and all available steps need to be taken to salvage these relationships. The removal of prohibitions around drug-use is definitely a positive step in that direction, as it would remove numerous tensions from all sides. By decriminalizing the use of drugs, Greece would manage to decrease the fiscal benefits of drug trafficking and ultimately discourage drug trafficking overall. The decriminalization of drugs would attack the drug market at its core, without Greece coming into a negative and counter-productive nexus with its neighbors. Moreover the eradication of criminal charges from drug-use could initiate a rather positive decriminalization movement in the Balkan region, where most of the drug issues of Europe originate (Estievenart, 1995). Greece could step forward to the forefront of a movement and in collaboration with Turkey, FYROM, Albania and other Balkan countries which themselves suffer internally from the issue of drugs, bring the decriminalization concept to the entire European region. As Carney argues, the criminalization of drug-use, in countries such as those in the Balkan region distorts their industrialization and undermines their state structures (1991, p. 3). This is argued because the criminalization of drug-use allows them to become black market suppliers and ‘thereby stalling their industrial development and undermining their democratic structures’ (Carney, 1991, p. 3). Based upon this decriminalization movement, the relations of Greece with its neighbors can start repairing due to the common point of interest for all parties. However, none of this will happen, if Greece does not decriminalize the use of drugs first.

There is significant evidence which supports that decriminalization, will decrease the criminal rates of Greece. In the past five years, the social system of Greece has changed. The European fiscal crisis has had a devastating impact on the Greek economy and has brought to its knees the lower socio-economic classes. Poverty, unemployment and desperation have become a common experience. On the ruins of their economy, the citizens of Greece have witnessed the rise of questionable behavior, perceived by the state as criminal. This is not hard to comprehend, as it is understandable that when people cannot meet their needs by legal means, they will resort to illegal acts. Due to this “criminal outbreak” the population of prisons has grown substantially. However, what is concerning about the growth of imprisoned population is that 40% of them are convicted for drug-use (doc.tv, 2011). This number rises if we include the crimes committed for the acquisition of drugs, including prostitution and theft (doc.tv, 2011). This is definitely not the solution. Putting people behind bars does not solve the issue. On the contrary, as Husak explains, ‘prisons are schools for crime; offenders become more deeply immersed in criminal subcultures and learn more sophisticated skills for committing offenses’ (2002, p. 143). This is clearly counter-productive. When drug-users are incarcerated, not only do they learn how to commit crimes in a more organized manner but they are also stigmatized to the extend that they cannot normally function in the social mainstream and cannot receive their rightful place. Citizens with criminal records are far less likely to hold a self-fulfilling and satisfying job (Albertson, 2012). This, in turn, limits their options and forces them to use the skills they acquired in prison to make their living; thus creating a fable cycle of crime production. This entire scenario can be avoided by removing the prohibitions surrounding drug-use. The long and costly “war on drugs” has failed in most, if not all, countries in the world, including the United States, Canada, Afghanistan and it has certainly failed in Greece (Friedrichs, 2008). James Wilson argues that prohibitions on drug-use do not decrease crime; they cause it (Wilson, 1990). Labeling users “criminals” forces them to maintain criminal liaisons, which can result in criminal activities. Furthermore, the decriminalization of drugs would tackle crimes, which can be either economic or systemic in nature. Prohibition of drug use raises the costs of drugs (Clutterbuck, 1990). As Lorne Tepperman writes, ‘prohibitions allows drug traffickers to create artificial monopolies, raising prices and creating the drug-dealer – consumer as a fundamental element in assuring that millions of dollars in profit go to drug lords and intermediaries’ (2006, p. 165). This raises economic crime as people who cannot afford black-market prices result to economic crimes to acquire the money to buy drugs. Systemic crime rises as well, as there is inherently more crime in illicit environments, let alone illicit drug markets. Therefore, by decriminalizing drug use, economic and systemic crimes decrease. It would also be useful to explore here the irrationality behind the application of criminal charges on drug-use. EMCDDA reports that in 2006 approximately 20% of Greek nationals had tried illicit drug substances at least once on their lifetime (European Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2011). As Tepperman argues, ‘drugs is not by itself a social problem’ (2006, p. 165). It is irrational to criminalize a practice when 20% of the population performs it; especially when it is unproblematic in nature. Drug use is a problem when it results in crimes and health risks; all of which are results of drug-criminalization and not drug-use itself.

Drug-use prohibiting policies severely diminish civil liberties. This is not only witnessed in Greece but all over the world. In an era when efforts to destroy drug trafficking networks have intensified, civil liberties become victims to the gathering of information and intelligence. An example is that the criminalization of drugs has excused extensive wiretapping in most of the Western world (Dorn & South, 1991). This in turn has resulted in the expansion of police powers, which is evident in our everyday life. Although there is little doubt that more, if not everyone, of the law-abiding citizens desire the demolition of trafficking networks, it is essential to know where the distinctive line lies that protects and defines individual freedoms and autonomy. Thurgood Marshall said himself that in drug cases, he did not even read the warrant petitions, as he would never be lenient to drug dealers (Haupt & Neary, 1987). On the shrine of drug criminalization, civil liberties are sacrificed. As Douglas Husak points out, this is a trend to worry about as with every ruling that criminalizes drug users and favors law enforcement, the freedoms of the individual are limited and the powers of the state are expanded (2002, p. 147). By decriminalizing drug-use, the rights of individuals are protected. Morris and Hawkins take this argument further and suggest that each individual should have the right to do as he pleases as long as no one is hurt directly in the process (1970). In fact, they say that each person has the right to go to hell in their own way (Murji, 1998, p. 54). Although, it is a really misplaced parallel that is drawn between “using drugs” and “going to hell”, their argument still stands, as each individual should have the ability to do anything that does not directly hurt or damage anyone else. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, ‘the right to swing my fist ends, where the other man’s nose begins’ (Holmes, 2011). Indeed, drug use, depending on the dose and the social circumstances within which it takes place, can only hurt the user. The criminal law, as John Stuart Mill argues, can only be rightfully exercised on members of a society to prevent harm upon others (Mill, 2011). The decriminalization of drugs, internationally, not only in Greece, would be a positive move towards strengthening, reinforcing and safeguarding the civil liberties, not only of drug users but of every individual as well; as John Kennedy said ‘the rights of every man are diminished, when the rights of one are threatened’ (Kennedy, 1963).

The difficult financial problems Greeks are faced with, in conjunction with the colossal amounts of money that can be made in the illicit drug market, provide prosperous ground for the growth of corruption. In fact, Charalampos Poulopoulos, head of the Therapy Centre for Dependent Individuals states that corruption comprises the biggest threat on the effort to achieve supply minimization (euMedline, 2010). Although it is impossible to measure precisely, the perception by Greeks that they live in a corrupt social structure is rather strong (Commission, 2003). Greece ranks 80th on Transparency International’s list with significant difference from countries including FYROM, Turkey and Colombia, who are some of the main suppliers of the Greek illicit drug market (Tsatsou, 2011). According to a research of Transparency International Greece, in 2011, the estimated value of corruption in Greece was 613 million Euros (PUBLIC ISSUE, 2012). It is thus rather evident that the Greek nation lacks the mechanisms, so desperately needed, to protect itself from the great temptation of drug money. Husak wrote on the topic of corruption that ‘prohibition and the huge amount of money in the illicit drug trade create irresistible temptations for law-enforcement agents to place themselves above the law’ (2002, p. 149). As mentioned above the criminalization of drug use raises the prices and thus the profits made from drugs. By removing criminal charges, the Greek government would decrease the profits of the market and eliminate the temptation of corruption. In the context of this economic crisis, when wages and salaries are cut, including policing expenditures and budgets, it is not hard to imagine that low paid officers would take part in such networks. Moreover, there is the other side of corruption. Police activities are highly funded by the seizing of drug assets. That way the police, on behalf of the state, has the right to seize any asset that is perceived to be used in drug operating networks, including cash, cars or any other property (Husak, 2002). This shows the dangerous levels police powers have reached. Police could use their powers to “fund” their precincts, something that lies far from the light shed by morality and ethos. Corruption is a problem that is hard to eliminate. This is not to suggest that nothing should or could be done about it. On the contrary, it ought to be one of the main concerns of every government and criminal justice system. Thus, the decriminalization of drugs should not be delayed any further as it manages to strike “two birds with one stone”; the desired harm minimization of drug use and the damaging effects of corruption.

The old national plan against drugs allowed the domination of racial bias in the Greek social structure. It endangered the health and wellbeing of all citizens, users and non-users alike. It amplified the tensions with neighboring countries and increased, instead of the opposite, systemic and economic crime. The previous Greek policy against drugs casually stomped on the civil liberties of citizens and provided prosperous ground for the growth of corruption. Evidently a new drug policy was needed to alter and repair the damage caused by the previous model. The harm minimization policy, despite the initial objections by the conservative parties of Greece, promises to do that and is expected to be set into motion by the end of 2012.


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  1. […] ← The Problems of Drug Criminalization in Greece – The need for a New Approach Feb 12 2013 […]

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