Home > Publication of EU Drugs Strategy 2021–2025.

Dillon, Lucy (2021) Publication of EU Drugs Strategy 2021–2025. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 77, Spring 2021, pp. 1-6.

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On 18 December 2020, the EU Drugs Strategy 2021–2025 was approved by the Council of Europe.1 The strategy outlines the overarching political framework and priorities of the drugs policy of the European Union (EU) for the period.

The aim of the EU strategy is:

to protect and improve the well-being of society and of the individual, to protect and promote public health, to offer a high level of security and well-being for the general public and to increase health literacy. The strategy takes an evidence-based, integrated, balanced and multidisciplinary approach to the drugs phenomenon at national, EU and international level. It also incorporates a gender equality and health equity perspective. (p. 2)1

This article describes the background to the new strategy, some of its key features, and how it compares with the EU’s 2013–2020 strategy.2 It also comments on the continuing alignment with Ireland’s national drugs strategy.3

Background to strategy

The EU Drugs Strategy 2021–2025 sets out to meet its aim by providing a common and evidence-based framework within which to respond to what it terms the drugs phenomenon, within and outside the EU.

The strategy is underpinned by the principles of EU law and its founding values (respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, solidarity, the rule of law, and human rights) and is aligned with relevant European and international laws and policies. Some of the international legal and policy documents cited by the strategy as being aligned with are the United Nations (UN) Conventions,4 the 2016 UNGASS outcome document,5 relevant goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,6 and the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy7: ‘All women, men and children, including people with drug-use disorders, have the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including freedom from violence’ (p. 3).1

Development of strategy

The strategy is the latest in a line of EU drugs policy documents, the first of which was published in 1990.8 Figure 1 presents a timeline of these documents. Since the EU Drugs Strategy 2000–2004,9 there has been a policy cycle in which a strategy is agreed and adopted, a linked action plan is developed to support its delivery, and these are subsequently evaluated to inform the development of the next strategy. The first strategy evaluation was carried out in 200410 and the first external evaluation in 2012.11

Each strategy is developed through a rigorous process in which member states work together to develop the strategic approaches in a series of negotiations, evaluations, and compromises so that consensus can be reached in the form of a new strategy document.12 This process has become increasingly evidence based. The strategy is underpinned by various evidence sources (including evaluations of the previous strategy) as well as relevant EU and international law and policy documents.

Source: Based on EMCDDA (2019) p. 412

Figure 1: New timeline of EU strategies, action plans, and evaluations 

Structure of strategy

The new strategy is a well-structured document and more detailed than its predecessors. It contains more detail on its strategic priorities and how it proposes to address these. Unlike the 2013–2020 strategy that was structured around two policy areas (drug demand reduction and drug supply reduction), the new strategy is structured around three:

I Drug supply reduction: enhancing security

II      Drug demand reduction: prevention, treatment, and care services

III     Addressing drug-related harm

These are supported by three cross-cutting themes that reflect those in the earlier strategy:

IV      International cooperation

Research, innovation, and foresight

VI      Coordination, governance, and implementation.

Eleven strategic priorities underpin these policy areas and themes, with a list of priority areas to address. See the accompanying article, ‘EU Drugs Strategy 2021–2025: policy areas, themes, and strategic priorities’, on page 7, for a full list.

Focus of new strategy

While a more comprehensive document than its predecessors, the new strategy signals a continuation in the overall direction for the EU in its approach through a balance of supply and demand reduction activities. However, there appears to be an increased focus on the consequences of drug use and its related harms, which is apparent in a new policy area on ‘addressing drug-related harm’. It focuses on measures and policies aimed at preventing or reducing the health and social risks and harms for people who use drugs, for society, and for those in prison settings.

Most of the priority areas contained in the strategy (including in the new policy area ‘addressing drug-related harm’) are not new to EU drug policy. However, they are presented in more detail which illustrates with greater clarity both the EU’s position and how the drug landscape has evolved since the previous strategy was published in 2012. For example, drug markets have changed significantly. Dealing with the use of social media platforms, apps, and internet/darknet marketplaces for the sale of illicit drugs and the associated payment systems has become a priority area for the EU. There has been an increase in drug-related violence which is also reflected in the new strategy. For example, the need to recognise the impact of drug-related crime, particularly on communities, and to counter the exploitation of children by organised crime groups is acknowledged. An example of a completely new issue to feature in the strategy is environmental crime related to illicit drug production and trafficking. This relates to the environmental impacts, hazards to health, and costs associated with the chemical waste generated by illicit synthetic drug production, as well as the handling and destruction of seized substances.

Alignment with Irish drugs strategy

While the Department of Health did not set out to mirror the EU’s 2013–2020 strategy when developing Ireland’s national drugs strategy (2017–2025), there was significant overlap between the two. There continues to be close alignment with the new EU strategy, in the overarching goals and policy areas and in the objectives and strategic priorities. Ireland’s drugs strategy reflects a similarly balanced approach to addressing both supply and demand reduction activities, although there is more emphasis in the Irish strategy on taking a health-led rather than a criminal-justice-led approach. Very similar priorities are identified across the board, including in the areas of prevention, treatment, harm reduction, rehabilitation/recovery/reintegration, drug markets, legislation, law enforcement, and drug monitoring. Given the move by the EU towards a strategy with an increased focus on health and drug-related harm, the strategies are now more closely aligned. When welcoming the new EU strategy, Frank Feighan TD, Minister of State for Public Health, Wellbeing and the National Drugs Strategy, said that Ireland had advocated for this increased focus on health:13

I welcome the new focus on the health needs of people who use drugs in the EU strategy, which mirrors the health-led approach in our national strategy, Reducing Harming, Supporting Recovery. Ireland strongly advocated for the inclusion of harm reduction in the strategy, along with traditional policies to reduce the supply and the demand for drugs.13

Both strategies emphasise the importance of research and adopting an evidence-based approach to implementation. A strong commitment to upholding human rights underpins the EU’s position and is also apparent in the Irish strategy. However, the language in the Irish strategy is framed around the health-led approach rather than using the language of human rights as such.

The Irish strategy explicitly aligns itself with the EU and other international partners on a range of activities: for example, on intercepting drugs – and precursors for diversion to the manufacture of drugs – being trafficked to Ireland, and on early warning and emerging trends networks. As part of an action to strengthen Ireland’s drug monitoring system, the Irish strategy commits to using European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) protocols to monitor the drug situation and to be able to respond to new data monitoring requests from the EU. This national approach fits well with that outlined in the EU strategy.

Moving forward, this alignment is set to continue. Both the EU and Ireland are due to agree new action plans for the period from 2021 to deliver on their strategies. Minister Feighan has stated that there will be synergy between the two action plans:

The EU Drugs Strategy and the forthcoming action plan are very timely as it will inform the mid-term review of actions in the national drugs strategy. Ireland cannot address the drugs issue in isolation from our European colleagues. I want to ensure that there is a synergy between the EU and national strategies and to avail of the opportunities provided in the EU strategy to share learning and good practice between member states.13

Concluding comment

The new EU drugs strategy is a more comprehensive document than its predecessors. It signals an ongoing commitment to a balance of supply and demand reduction activities to address the drugs phenomenon, although an increased emphasis on addressing the consequences and harms of drug use is apparent. There is synergy in the approaches of Ireland and the EU, which would suggest having opportunities to collaborate and draw on the evidence base and experience of other European member states. The EU Action Plan on Drugs (2021–2025) currently being drawn up, and which is set to be adopted during Portugal’s presidency of the EU later in 2021, will inform Ireland’s action plan for the remainder of the national strategy’s lifetime.

1 Council of the European Union (2020) EU drugs strategy 2021–2025. Brussels: Council of the European Union. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/33750/

2 Council of the European Union (2012) EU drugs strategy (2013–2020). Brussels: Council of the European Union. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/19034/

3 Department of Health (2017) Reducing harm, supporting recovery: a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017–2025. Dublin: Department of Health. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27603/

4 These include the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as amended by the 1972 Protocol; the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances; and the 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

5 European Commission (2015) European Union common position on UNGASS 2016. Brussels: European Commission. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/29224/

6 United Nations (2015) Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. New York: United Nations. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/33751/

7 United Nations Development Programme (2019) International guidelines on human rights and drug policy. New York: United Nations Development Programme. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/30447/

8 European Committee to Combat Drugs (CELAD) (1990) European plan to combat drugs. Brussels: European Council. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/33749/

9 Council of the European Union (1999) European Union drugs strategy (2000–2004). Brussels: Council of the European Union. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/6104/   

10 Commission of the European Communities (2004) Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on the results of the final evaluation of the EU drugs strategy and action plan on drugs (2000–2004). COM(2004)707 final. Brussels: Commission of the European Communities. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/33757/

11 Culley DM, Skoupy J, Rubin J, Hoorens S, Disley E and Rabinovich L (2012) Assessment of the implementation of the EU Drugs Strategy 2005–2012 and its Action Plans. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Europe/European Commission Directorate General for Justice. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/17312/

12      European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) (2019) The EU drugs strategy: a model for common action. Lisbon: EMCDDA. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/31190/

13 Department of Health (2021) Minister Feighan welcomes the approval of the EU Drugs Strategy 2021–2025 [Press release]. 25 February 2021. Dublin: Department of Health. Available online at:

Item Type
Publication Type
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 77, Spring 2021
June 2021
Page Range
pp. 1-6
Health Research Board
Issue 77, Spring 2021

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