27th Oct 2016

Italy and Vatican threaten EU unity in drugs talks

  • Needle exchange programmes are part of "harm reduction" measures (Photo:

Italy is threatening to undermine EU unity in high-stakes UN talks on drug abuse, with Rome appearing to take the lead from the Vatican in a recent u-turn on issues such as needle-exchange.

Heading into a UN conference on 11 March whose outcome will set the international anti-drugs policy agenda for the next 10 years, the European Union, negotiating as one bloc, has so far backed greater emphasis on "harm reduction."

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Harm reduction covers programmes such as drug replacement therapy, needle exchanges to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids and keeping non-violent offenders out of prison.

The EU-backed approach stands in contrast to the US, Japan and Russia's prohibitionist line of a "War on Drugs," which in some cases stretches to the use of military force in Colombia or Afghanistan.

Until February, Sweden was the only EU member which questioned harm reduction. Health minister Maria Larsson explained to EUobserver that Stockholm believes some aspects of the policy are not in accordance with the UN Convention on Drugs and Narcotics.

Sweden did not block an EU common position on the issue, despite its views.

But Italy has now come out against the common position on harm reduction, in a surprise move that could undermine EU effectiveness in the UN talks, Italian opposition MPs Marco Perduca and Donatella Poretti told this website.

The move, made on the insistence of national anti-drugs czar Carlo Giovanardi, comes just days after the Holy See on 12 February issued a communique condemning harm reduction as "anti life."

"So-called harm reduction leads to liberalisation of the use of drugs, to an increase in the number of addicted people and to blurring of consciences, leading also to the loss of one's free will," the statement said.

"The conservative parties in Italy, when it comes to these moral issues, regularly take their opinions from the position of the Holy See," Mr Perduca said.

Mr Perduca's libertarian Radical Party is currently part of a broader centre-left opposition in Italy. The country's last centre-left administration supported methadone and needle exchange projects, but drew the line at medical use of heroin and marijuana.

"It's puzzling why Italy continues with some harm reduction measures domestically, while it seems now [to be] opposing them at the international level," Open Society Institute global drugs programme director, Kassia Malinowska, said.

"It looks like they have capitulated to a public health policy dictated to them by the Church."

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