Abuse of drugs and alcohol in the workplace is a growing concern in European Union (EU) countries – but in general, policies directed against substance abuse are determined on a national basis.
While following the guidelines of Brussels’ 2000-2004 action plan on drugs, the national governments of the 15 EU member countries broadly reflect the differing approaches taken by those governments to the problems of drug abuse in society as a whole.
The result is a wide variety of solutions to something that the EU’s Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) says ‘is a growing problem’.
A spokeswoman for EMCDDA says the organisation has yet to conduct a study of substance abuse at work because ‘member states do not provide information on the extent of drug abuse at work’.
Drugs and the workplace
In recent years, however, the EU Council of Ministers has approved a series of resolutions calling on member countries to invest more in drug prevention programmes, to intensify efforts to curb the recreational use of drugs and to improve the treatment of drug users.
As the EMCDDA says in its annual report for 2003, the trend in recent years has been to organise national drug policies through national action plans and co-ordinated systems.
However, there seems to be no support for the legalisation of cannabis, even though it is held to be the most widely used drug in the workplace, although ‘varying levels of support were given to the idea of modifying punishments for the use of cannabis in certain circumstances’, EMCDDA says.
Surveys conducted between 2000 and 2002 estimate that at least one in five adults in Europe have used cannabis at least once in their lifetime.
Figures for people between 15 and 34 years of age are generally even higher, ranging up to 44 per cent. According to the EMCDDA spokeswoman, ‘in some countries, the use of drugs at work must be almost commonplace’.
The lack of recognition of workplace substance abuse as an issue of concern for the EU, generally reflects the centre’s view that both the problems and the problematic groups are often not clear-cut. Drug policies ‘are geared to results and deliveries, but the evaluation of results is still not widespread’.
Countries such as Germany, Greece, Luxembourg and Finland have modified legislation to facilitate the treatment and rehabilitation of drug users, while Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK have introduced legislation ‘to minimise the social impact of drug use through stricter controls of public-order offences and nuisance’.
The centre says that national and local policies ‘increasingly reflect an awareness of the insidious character of the phenomenon by making boundaries between the systems more permeable and flexible through increasing co-operation and diversification’. Healthcare, educational and social policies are becoming more important in reducing drug-related problems in the widest sense, and the EMCDDA says ‘it is increasingly recognised that the criminal justice system alone is not always capable of handling the problem of drug use’.
The link between social exclusion policy and drug issues is stronger in certain countries, such as Ireland and the UK. Several countries in the EU have introduced legislative changes to facilitate the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts, and other legal changes have opened up possibilities for early intervention among young experimental drug users. Denmark, Germany, Britain and Norway have increased healthcare investment in an attempt to reduce the number of drug-related deaths.
Who’s doing what?
But how is drug and alcohol abuse actually dealt with in leading EU countries – bearing in mind that this is the legal situation and that employers will often follow their own policies that generally reflect the ethos of their society?
In France, for instance, there has been a long-running debate over the prosecution of drug use, and the number of cases against drug users has diminished. One survey shows that only 10 per cent of all persons arrested by the police for drug use are actually prosecuted, and while prison sentences for drug use do exist, they remain a rarity.
Possession of illegal drugs is a criminal offence in France and although the law does not distinguish between personal use and trafficking, in practice, considerable discretion is left to the prosecutor. For mere use – with no distinction between the categories of drug – there is a maximum prison sentence of one year and a fine of up to £2,500. But in most cases’ where no other offence is involved, the police do not even investigate.
Under German law, the consumption of narcotic drugs is not defined as a criminal offence, although anyone possessing them for private consumption must have written permission for their acquisition.
The public prosecutor may drop a case if it considers the offender’s guilt to be minor, if there is no public interest and if the narcotics have been used only by the offender for personal consumption.
However, Germany is a federal state where the regional governments have a high level of autonomy, and there is a sharp contrast between the highly restrictive approach taken in the south compared with the more liberal north.
Italian legislation has been based on the principle of the non-criminalisation of consumption of drugs for some time. Possession, acquisition, and importing drugs for personal consumption are prohibited, but only receive administrative sanctions, and no fixed quantities are set to distinguish between personal use and trafficking. This is left to the judicial authorities.
In Sweden, all aspects of drug use other than personal consumption are considered crimes, and penalties range from fines or six months’ imprisonment, to between two and 10 years for trafficking and other serious offences. An offence is almost always judged to be minor if the amount of the substance found in possession is less than 0.05 of a gram.
Austria does not mention the consumption of controlled drugs as an offence by law, but illegal possession of drugs – where the quantity is the determining factor – is a crime. Austrian law puts therapy ahead of punishment and reserves major sanctions for sale or trafficking.
Alcohol and the workplace
Where alcohol is concerned, there is little involvement by the EU, and no legislation at all in Brussels. Policy is determined by national governments, although in practice, regulations are agreed between employers and workers, and observed on an informal basis.
France’s employment code forbids specified drinks in designated establishments, and bans the presence of intoxicated people in these venues. There is a highly developed network of regional organisations with prevention of drug abuse and alcoholism as their main objective. This is handled on a largely voluntary basis, and transgressions of the regulations are rare.
There is no general ban in Germany on alcohol at the workplace, and the matter is not covered explicitly in regulations for the prevention of accidents.
However, a clause in these regulations states that “those who, as a result of ingestion of alcohol or other psychotropic substance, are no longer in a condition to perform their duties without danger to themselves or others, must be discharged.” In most cases, an effective ban on alcohol is agreed between unions and employers.
Italy has virtually no specific regulations about alcohol in the workplace, although a presidential decree states that: “Consumption of wine, beer and other alcoholic drinks in the company is forbidden. However, reasonable consumption of wine and beer in the staff restaurant during meal times is agreed”.
In most cases, collective agreements between management and labour provide for disciplinary measures in the form of fines or suspension. In Ireland, alcoholism is considered as an illness. There are no laws, and the arrangements for its treatment through salary, sick leave, job guarantees, promotion prospects and so forth, are dealt with as they are for other illnesses. The disciplinary criterion is not the illness itself, but the loss of performance which results from it.
Similarly, there are no laws specifically relating to alcohol consumption in the UK, but the Health and Safety at Work Act imposes a legal obligation on employers to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of their staff, while workers are responsible for safeguarding their own health and safety and that of their colleagues.
More specific laws cover the transport industry, where operatives risk committing a penal offence, with a penalty of fines or up to six months imprisonment for alcoholic or drug intoxication.