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Spain’s drug problem

Recent anti-drug policies in Spain and across Europe and the United States have failed to have the planned effect. Broaching the taboo of legalisation would provide a new approach, but few governments are willing to even entertain the idea of doing so.


If the yardstick measuring a country’s drug problem is the widespread availability at low prices of banned chemical substances, then it would seem Spain has a drug problem. The EU’s European Drug Observatory says that around 120 tons of cocaine is intercepted each year by police in Europe, and that three quarters of those seizures take place in Spain and Portugal.

Attempting to estimate how much the police miss is next to impossible. An often-cited figure that law enforcement agencies catch just 10 percent of the illegal trade is not based on empirical evidence – although extrapolations are frequently used to guess the extent of domestic drug supply by multiplying the volume of seizures by ten.

A more reliable United Nations study on the trafficking of cocaine from South and Central America, which examined production against seizures, indicated that law enforcement agencies managed to take out up to 42 percent of drugs in the market. Accepting the UN’s conservative calculation means that around 180 million tons of cocaine could be coming into Spain and Portugal alone each year.

Recent media reports talk of there being so much cocaine in Spain that it has been traced in the water of the Ebro river in Catalonia, and in the air particles above Barcelona.

Now, before reading on, hazard a guess, in percentage terms, how many Spaniards will have used cocaine at least once in the last month.

The abundant supply of cocaine in Spain is illustrated by its price, which, factoring in inflation has fallen over the last two decades. It cost 10,000 pesetas a gram in 1990, and the same amount now costs around €60 – virtually the same amount. To put that figure in context, the price of oranges has risen tenfold over the same period.

In short, the story is that the authorities fighting drug supply and use in Spain face an implacable enemy able to produce and distribute larger and larger amounts of cocaine, which Spaniards are presumably sniffing in ever larger amounts. They’re snowed under.

A changing drug policy

Spain’s drug policy over the last 35 years has become increasingly restrictive. In the heady days of freedom following the death of Franco, legislators took a highly tolerant approach to drug use, seeing it as a personal liberty, and decriminalizing the use not only of cannabis, but of cocaine, and even heroin. The problem was that distributing drugs remained illegal. As a result, demand increased, particularly for heroin. Cocaine didn’t come on the scene until the mid-late 1980s. As with prostitution, international organized crime took advantage of this country’s tolerant legislation and took over supply and distribution.

By the early 1990s, under pressure from Brussels and Washington, and in the face of one of Europe’s fastest-growing AIDS rates (due almost entirely to needle sharing among heroin users), the governing Socialist Party cracked down on drug use, making it an offense to consume all controlled substances, including cannabis, in public places. The police were still tolerant about home use, and it was still easy to buy on the streets in certain neighbourhoods of the big cities.

As we entered the new millennium, the authorities began a policy of trying to eradicate supply from city centres. This was particularly noticeable in say, Madrid, where for the last few years a heavy police presence on the streets of the Lavapiés neighbourhood, long renowned as a place to buy dope, has sent the dealers packing — to other areas.

Spain’s current drug policy is laid out in its National Drugs Plan, which more or less fits in with EU policy. The focus is on harm reduction. Its stated aim is to limit the negative impact on individuals (such as health, antisocial behaviour) and the negative impact drug use has on society in general (including crime and the costs of healthcare and policing). The goals are to reduce use (especially by those under 18); reduce drug-related deaths and health problems (especially AIDS); reduce supply and demand; and reduce drug-related crime. The strategy employs a three-pronged approach: police work to minimize the supply of drugs and identify problem users; education to warn people about the dangers of drugs; and support from the medical community to help addicts recover their lives. The policy doesn’t countenance allowing people to take drugs safely.

Recreation…or addiction?

So just how many Spaniards consume psychoactive substances on a regular basis? Again, reliable figures are hard to come by. The country’s National Drug Observatory, which operates under the aegis of the National Drugs Plan, has figures up until 2005, based on national polling of an age group between 15 and 65.

These figures show that between 1995 and 2005, 38 and 64 percent respectively of those polled had consumed alcohol and tobacco within the last month. Those figures fell to 32 and 15 percent respectively for consumption on a daily basis over the preceding month.

In the case of cannabis, the Drug Observatory’s figures show that 8.7 percent of those polled had consumed the drug in the last month. Just 2 percent did so on a daily basis. That said, the figure had doubled over the preceding decade.

In the case of cocaine, 1.6 percent of those polled had consumed the drug within the preceding month, a figure that had almost doubled in a decade. There are no figures for daily use of cocaine, but presumably it would be safe to apply the same formula as to cannabis.

The Drug Observatory’s figures show that around 25,000 people sought treatment for cocaine dependency in 2005, and around 18,000 people for heroin dependency. There were no figures for cannabis.

These figures may surprise the reader: they did me, because they seem to represent a small proportion of the population. It is difficult to extrapolate much from estimates; but back in 2005, there were around 18 million people aged between 16 and 44. Doing the math, that produces around 288,000 people who use cocaine a couple of times a month. One has to ask oneself just what damage to society or themselves this tiny percentage of people represents.

And what about the cost of preventing those 288,000 drug users? According to the EU’s Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction report for 2008: “The new estimate of drug-related public expenditure in Europe is €34 billion, which is equivalent to 0.3 percent of the combined GDP of all EU Member States. This suggests that State expenditure on the drug problem costs the average EU citizen €60 a year.”

It isn’t clear whether this figure includes the cost of imprisoning people: one in four people is in jail for a drug-related crime, and more than half of the phenomenal growth in Europe and Spain’s prison population is due to drugs-related sentencing (see Iberosphere article “Overcrowding leaves Spain’s prisons on the brink”).

So, what conclusions to draw from a look at the figures: despite the headlines warning us of the deadly spread of drugs, and growing use, it seems that despite widespread availability very few people in Spain use illegal substances, and only around 10 percent of them become dependent: a similar figure to alcohol dependence.


There are some very persuasive arguments for legalising all drugs. That is to say, controlling their manufacture and distribution in the same way as alcohol and tobacco, as advocated by, for example, The Economist and The Nation.

These two publications argue that in a secular society committed to individual liberty and personal responsibility, the legislator’s task is to enact laws to govern the behaviour of adults, not children (whose management is primarily the responsibility of their parents). Once we lose sight of this fact, it is easy to convince us that protecting children from drugs justifies making drugs difficult to obtain for adults. Personal liberty surely must extend to what, when, and how much a citizen can ingest.

One of the main arguments against legalising any currently banned substance is that consumption would rise. It is hard to argue that sales of any product that is made cheaper, safer and more widely available would fall.

We have seen a substantial reduction in the use of tobacco over the last thirty years, and this is not because tobacco became illegal but because a sentient community began, in substantial numbers, to apprehend the high cost of tobacco to human health. If Spaniards can experiment with drugs and resist addiction using information publicly available, we can reasonably hope that approximately the same number would resist the temptation to purchase such drugs even if they were available at a drugstore at the mere cost of production.

Opponents of legalisation might say that it doesn’t matter if consumption isn’t actually that high in Spain; the country is clearly an entry point for drugs that are to be distributed throughout the rest of the continent, and is part of a chain of corruption that is destabilizing West Africa and Latin America. True. But only because of the huge rewards that await organized crime in Europe for providing banned drugs to a relative minority of people.

Growing numbers of law enforcement officials in Europe and the United States recognize that the war on drugs was lost a long time ago, and are calling for a proper debate on legalisation. Sadly, this is unlikely to ever materialise. In large part this is because in one striking way, defenders of drug laws share a common conception of drug use with many of those who take a more tolerant approach: they regard it as a problem, often as a disease. For the reformers of Spain’s National Drugs Plan, users should be treated, and not imprisoned. Yet the reality is that, as with alcohol, most people who smoke dope, snort cocaine, or take ecstasy, maintain normal lives.

We might be grateful in Spain that our leaders have not followed the French or British approach, and much less that of the United States’ “war on drugs”, which has wrought such devastation there and in producing countries. The Obama administration has dropped the use of the term “the war on drugs” and its National Drug Control Strategy emphasises prevention, treatment, enforcement, and international cooperation. But it still refuses point blank to think about legalising cannabis.

And no government here is about to propose legalising cannabis either, and much less cocaine. Quite simply, Brussels and the United States wouldn’t allow it to.

And so the government toes the line by peddling the myth that Spain has a problem with drugs, when, if one chooses to look at it another way, it actually has a problem caused by the prohibition of drugs.

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Published: Jul 14 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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