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Dillon, Lucy (2021) Evaluation of EU Drugs Strategy 2013–2020. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 77, Spring 2021, pp. 12-14.

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The new European Union (EU) Drugs Strategy 2021–20251 was published in December 2020 and is discussed in other articles in this issue of Drugnet. It is informed by the findings of the evaluation of the EU Drugs Strategy 2013–2020 and the EU Action Plan on Drugs 2017–2020, which was published in July 2020.2,3

The evaluation was one of a suite of documents launched as part of the European Commission’s EU Security Union Strategy 2020–2025,4 which considered drugs within the broader context of fostering security for all those living in Europe:

From combatting terrorism and organised crime, to preventing and detecting hybrid threats and increasing the resilience of our critical infrastructure, to promoting cybersecurity and fostering research and innovation, the strategy lays out the tools and measures to be developed over the next 5 years to ensure security in our physical and digital environment.4

Scope of the evaluation

The EU Drugs Strategy 2013–20205 was based on a five-pillar structure that consisted of two main policy areas – the reduction of both drug demand and supply – and three cross-cutting themes: coordination; international cooperation; and research, information, monitoring, and evaluation. The EU Action Plan on Drugs 2017–20206 followed on from the EU Action Plan on Drugs 2013–20167 and set out to facilitate the implementation of the priorities laid out in the strategy. As with its predecessor, the 2017–2020 action plan was structured around the objectives aligned to the five pillars, which were further divided into a set of concrete actions allocated to relevant stakeholders with a timeline for implementation. Indicators and data collection mechanisms were identified to support monitoring and evaluation.

The evaluation aimed to assess the implementation of the strategy and the 2017–2020 action plan in terms of outputs, results, and impacts. These were considered in the context of the five mandatory evaluation criteria set out in the European Commission’s Better Regulation Guidelines8: relevance, coherence, effectiveness, efficiency, and EU-added value. A mixed-method approach was taken in the evaluation, which involved accessing a wide range of data sources and consultation with stakeholders. Those consulted through the process included EU member states, competent authorities, civil society organisations, and the general public.

In its simplest terms, the analytical framework of the evaluation compares the baseline situation in the EU in 2013 (for each of the five pillars and objectives) with how things stood in 2020 (the implementation state of play). It then examines the extent to which the actions and outputs that can be observed through relevant evidence sources (including feedback from stakeholders) correspond to what was expected to have been achieved by the strategy through its action plans. For a more detailed description of the methodological approach and its limitations, readers should access the full evaluation report.3

Findings of the evaluation

The key findings, as laid out in the evaluation report and its executive summary, were:

  • The technological, social, political, and environmental context affecting the demand and supply of drugs was found to have evolved considerably since 2013, making the strategy and action plan only partially relevant to the drug situation at the time of the evaluation.
  • The strategy and action plan were found to have remained largely consistent with relevant European legislation and policy at international level. However, changes in the drug situation since 2013 were considered to have weakened the coherence between the strategy and the broader policy fields of health and security.
  • The strategy and action plan were found to have been only partially effective in achieving the drug demand reduction objective. Progress had been made in some areas: for example, there were increases in the variety of general and specific prevention and treatment interventions that had been implemented across many EU member states. However, there had not been a reduction in drug demand across the EU in comparison with 2013. In fact, prevalence of drug use ‘increased across most types of drugs across most member states since the baseline year. The overall increase was particularly pronounced amongst young people. Finally, drug-related deaths across the EU have also increased’ (p. 21).3
  • Similarly, the strategy and action plan were only partially effective in achieving the drug supply reduction objective. The evaluation found progress had been made in terms of effective law enforcement coordination and cooperation within the EU. However, it also found that the estimated availability of most types of drugs had increased in the EU since 2013. Drug purity had also largely increased over the same period. It also notes that the large-scale operations conducted seemed to have been largely insufficient to disrupt the illicit drug markets.
  • Where the strategy and action plan had been most effective was in delivering on the three cross-cutting objectives (coordination; international cooperation; and research, information, monitoring, and evaluation). Overall, drug policy was found to be effectively coordinated at EU and international levels; the EU spoke with ‘one voice’ on drug policy on the international stage.
  • In light of the findings, the evaluators conclude that ‘generally speaking, it would seem that the strategy did not make significant contributions towards achieving its planned overall impact to ensure a high level of human health protection, social stability and security’ (p. 38).3
  • In terms of efficiency, there was no conclusive evidence on whether the results attributed to the strategy and action plan were achieved at a reasonable or unreasonable cost. The evaluators could not carry out a sound assessment on efficiency as quantifiable data regarding drugs-policy-related costs were not widely available from member states.
  • One of the successes of the strategy and action plan was that they generated EU-added value insofar as they achieved results that national or other European initiatives would not have achieved. This included establishing ‘a common strategic framework’ and ‘bridging’ between member states and different levels of governance. They ‘encouraged cross-border coordination and exchange of information and evidence-based best practices among member states and thus created economies of scale in terms of synergies and efficiencies’ (p. 39).3
  • The stakeholder consultations found continued support from member states and civil society organisations for strategic EU involvement in drugs policy; it was argued that to discontinue an EU-wide drugs strategy would likely have negative effects.

 

Recommendations of the evaluation

In terms of feeding into the next strategy (2021–2025), the evaluation made recommendations related to its structure and focus. It was recommended that it be more concrete in its actions and priorities and that the monitoring system should be simplified. It was also recommended that it should cover a shorter period of time. Taking account of changes in the drugs landscape, it recommended that future priorities need to consider trends such as:

…increased poly-criminality of organized crime groups and their adaptive and innovative modus operandi; role of the EU as a producer and exporter; increased levels of violence and corruption that enable the drug trade; technologic enablers such as darknet marketplaces, cryptocurrencies and encryption technology for buying/selling drugs; new patterns of drug consumption between young people and the aging population, as well as gender differences; societal and environmental effects. The consequences of the drug phenomenon are becoming more complex and intertwined, extend across different sectors and go beyond EU’s borders. The future strategic approach to EU drugs policy must be evidence-based, balanced and further integrated to reflect the relevant trends that the EU will be facing in the coming years. (p. 2)2

Conclusion

The findings of the evaluation reflect the complexities of the drugs landscape and the policies and interventions required to address the issues it presents. While the evaluation illustrates the effectiveness of an EU-wide strategy in supporting cross-cutting objectives, it struggles to show the impact on elements of the drug demand and supply pillars, which are central to the strategy. The new EU drugs strategy is discussed in other articles in this issue of Drugnet. It is clear that the recommendations of this evaluation that relate to structure and focus were taken into account in its development. However, challenges identified in this evaluation will remain. For example, how to adapt to an ever-evolving landscape and how to capture the necessary evidence to understand whether the approach adopted in the strategy is the most effective in addressing the needs. More importantly, how better to achieve drug demand and supply reductions.

 

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

2 European Commission Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs (2020) Executive summary of the evaluation of the EU drugs strategy 2013–2020 and the EU action plan on drugs 2017–2020. Brussels: European Commission. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/33772/

3 European Commission (2020) Evaluation of the EU drugs strategy 2013-2020 and EU action plan on drugs 2017–2020. European Commission. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/33772/

4 European Commission (2020) EU Security Union Strategy: connecting the dots in a new security ecosystem [Press release]. Brussels: European Commission. Available online at:
https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_1379

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

6 Council of the European Union (2017) EU action plan on drugs 2017–2020. Brussels: Council of the European Union. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27680/

7 Council of the European Union (2013) EU action plan on drugs (2013–2016). Brussels: Council of the European Union. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/20004/

8 For more information on the guidelines, visit: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/better-regulation-guidelines-evaluation-fitness-checks.pdf

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