Nearly 30 years ago, a group of European cities signed a groundbreaking drug policy agreement that heralded many important harm reduction advances. Today, it continues to inform progress in North America—although its lessons have been learned far too slowly.
In 1990, amid soaring rates of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis among injecting drug users, the municipal government of Frankfurt hosted representatives from Hamburg, Zurich, and Amsterdam to craft and sign the Frankfurt Resolution. The document outlined “a participatory, consensus-based process of integrated local drug policy,” as described by Dr. Heino Stöver of Frankfurt’s University of Applied Sciences.
The Frankfurt Resolution began with a blunt assessment of its contemporaneous context: “The attempt to eliminate both the supply and the consumption of drugs in our society has failed.”
Such “attempts” had included police crackdowns, according to Stöver. For example, “Law enforcement would maintain a presence in the park [where people used drugs] and drug users would find another location, only to return later.”
The Frankfurt Resolution—in contrast to “drug-free” programs like those funded and proposed by President Donald Trump—recognizes that substance use cannot be “eradicated by drug policy,” but rather that people who use drugs should be “offer[ed] assistance and support” to reduce associated harms.
To meet these aims, the Resolution proposed a “dramatic shift in priorities in drug policy.” Looking to the drug policies found in Amsterdam, the document resolved to “distinguish between cannabis and other illegal drugs” by making the “purchase, possession and consumption of cannabis no longer constitute a penal offence,” and to distribute “sterile syringes to drug users and maintenance with methadone.”
Following the example of Berne, the city that opened Switzerland’s first officially sanctioned drug consumption room way back in 1986, the Resolution advised cities to “permit the establishment of ‘good health rooms’ in which drugs can be consumed under supervision.” It also encouraged the establishment of a “trial within a scientific framework” to analyze the “medically controlled prescription of drugs to long-term drug users.”
Municipal authorities in Switzerland were instrumental in calling for the exploration of heroin-assisted treatment in that country in the early 1990s, a service that met with great success and is also available in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada.
In 1992, Frankfurt opened one of the largest drug user service centers in Europe, offering methadone maintenance and a syringe exchange. And in 1994, four drug consumption rooms were established in Hamburg and Frankfurt—even though they would not be made legal until 2000.
This is part of what makes the Frankfurt Resolution and its aftermath so important for present harm reduction advocates: the demonstration that local municipalities can care for residents, even when state and national governments fail to do so.
The Frankfurt Resolution’s continuing influence on current drug policy reformers was highlighted in a report released by the Drug Policy Alliance on January 22. Municipal Drug Strategy: Lessons in Taking Drug Policy Reform Local traces numerous municipal-level drug policy innovations, from the “Frankfurt Way” to more recent initiatives launched in North American cities like Ithaca, Santa Fe, San Francisco and Vancouver.
The Ithaca Plan, for example, has, since its 2016 launch, yielded the expansion of medication-assisted treatment, drug-checking services to test for fentanyl adulteration, and naloxone distribution. Cross-fertilization continues: Inspired in part by Ithaca, Santa Fe convened its Municipal Drug Strategy Committee in 2018.
“Despite the federal government’s failures, most drug policies are carried out at the local and state levels—which has spurred many municipalities to fight back by moving drug policy reforms forward with urgency,” said Emily Kaltenbach, DPA’s senior director of national criminal justice reform strategy. “City governments are increasingly positioned at the center of innovation in solving complex large-scale public problems like drug overdose and mass criminalization.”