Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Classification and Deterrence - where's the evidence?




In the first of series of blog posts considering the Government's response to the The Science and Technology Select Committee's report 'Drug Classification; Making a Hash of it?' we consider what is arguably the most significant finding of the Select Committee and the most stunningly inadequate of the Government’s responses.

The Science and Technology Select Committee report 'Drug Classification: Making a Hash of it?' conclusion/recommendation 34:

"We have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect, despite the fact that it appears to underpin the Government’s policy on classification. In view of the importance of drugs policy and the amount spent in enforcing the penalties associated with the classification system, it is highly unsatisfactory that there is so little knowledge about the system’s effectiveness".

The Government’s response, in full:

“Reject in Principle

The Government fundamentally believes that illegality is an important factor when people are considering engaging in risk-taking behaviour. The exposure to criminal sanction, in particular through sentencing, influences perceptions and behaviours. It believes that the illegality of certain drugs, and by association their classification, will impact on drug use choices, by informing the decisions of dealers and users. Imposing penalties on the offence of possession is intended to deter use, particularly experimentation by young people. Whilst the Government accepts that there is an absence of conclusive evidence in relation to the deterrent effect of the existing classification structure, there is some evidence from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey that the deterrent effect of harsher sentencing was greater among those admitting to the supply of a Class A drug, compared with other offences.The Government will consider ways in which the evidence base in the context of the deterrent effect can be strengthened.”

Comment:

Perhaps the best place to start is to note that whether the Government ‘fundamentally believes’ that ‘illegality is an important factor when people are considering engaging in risk-taking behaviour’ is not the point. This is not about ‘belief’, however fundamental it may be. This is an issue of sound science and evidence based policy. The Select Committee very clearly points out: ‘we have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect’. The Government produce nothing to challenge this beyond their ‘belief’ in the existence of such an effect and yet they reject the conclusion regardless. This deserves some more detailed attention.

With apologies for some trumpet blowing here, Transform’s evidence to the Select Committee was quoted directly in their final report:

Transform Drug Policy Foundation asserted that the ABC classification system was "based upon the false assumptions underlying historical prohibition of specific drugs". Steve Rolles, information officer for Transform, also told us: "there is no research at all—not a single piece of research ever done by the Home Office that I am aware of—into the effectiveness of the classification system as a deterrent and the independent research that we do have—what little there is—suggests that at best it is a marginal impact on drug taking decisions". The Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker was unable to provide us with any specific evidence to the contrary.

The Government’s written response (see above) does not offer any new evidence to the contrary either, even though they have had several months to find some since Vernon Coaker was unable to do so earlier in the year. They merely restate that the Government ‘believes’ illegality will ‘impact on drug user choices’. There is a vague reference to ‘some evidence from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey’ but no details are given, and they are clear that ‘there is an absence of conclusive evidence in relation to the deterrent effect of the existing classification structure’.

This is a very long way from an adequate response to the Committee’s conclusion and is frankly insulting as a basis for rejecting it.

It is important to be clear what we are talking about here. The deterrent effect is the absolute cornerstone of the classification system and indeed the entire criminal justice based policy we have in the UK - the policy of prohibition - on which billions of pounds are spent each year. The concept of enforcement / penalty related deterrence is precisely why we have a hierarchy of penalties superimposed on the hierarchy of harms (the ABC classification system), and why drug policy is run by the Home Office and not by the Department of Health (which runs policy for alcohol and other legal drugs). That the Science and Technology Select committee was unable to find any evidence of a deterrent effect is remarkable enough. That the Government – challenged by the Committee – were then unable to produce any credible evidence - not a shred - of a deterrent effect is quite simply astonishing. It can only call into question the entire classification system and indeed the enforcement focus and punitive nature of UK drug policy generally.

This is not even the first time that the issue of deterrence relating to criminal penalties has been raised by a Select Committee. The Home Affairs Select Committee were concerned enough about the issue to raise it back in 2001 in their report; ‘The UK’s Drug Policy: Is It Working?’ (to which, incidentally, they concluded: no). The Committee specifically asked for a response to the question ‘what would the effect of decriminalisation be on the demand for drugs?’. Whilst Transform might have phrased the question a little more precisely, the initial Home Office submission ignored it completely and just trotted out current Government policy, failing to address the question in any way. The Committee, somewhat affronted, demanded an answer to the question it had actually asked. They received the following short response:

“As some people would seem to be attracted to experiment with controlled drugs because of their illegality (e.g. "forbidden fruits"), the evidence suggests that a great many are deterred by the law. Nineteen per cent of children and 30 per cent of adults surveyed by MORI on behalf of the recent Police Foundation Inquiry, mentioned the law as the reason for not taking drugs. And the respective prevalence rates for controlled drugs and alcohol and tobacco are also illustrative.”

The relevant section of the Police Foundation Inquiry report that the Home Office are quoting, actually says this:

“The most frequent reasons given by both children and adults for people not taking drugs were 'health reason' (33% and 51%) and 'just don't want to take drugs’ (27% and 56%). By comparison only 19% of children and 30% of adults mentioned 'illegality' and 12% of children and 17% of adults cited 'fear of being caught by the police'.”

So even five years ago, the only research evidence that the Home Office could scrape together to support the contention that illegality deterred use was a poll from the Police Foundation Inquiry report that showed less than a fifth of children mentioned the law as a reason for not taking drugs, less than one in eight children or one in six adults mentioned ‘fear of being caught by the police’, and there were two other reasons given, health concerns and lack of interest, that scored much higher as reasons for not taking drugs. Bear in mind also that the Police Foundation Inquiry that commissioned the quoted survey was, at the time, not only the most critical report ever produced of UK drug policy, but also one that concluded;

"such evidence as we have assembled about the current situation and the changes that have taken place in the last 30 years all point to the conclusion that the deterrent effect of the law has been very limited".

Furthermore we hear the Home Office suggest that in fact ‘some people would seem to be attracted to experiment with controlled drugs because of their illegality’. This clearly suggests the opposite of what they are nominally arguing for although, to be fair, they do not provide any evidence for this point either. The evidence they cite regarding alcohol (use of which is rising) and tobacco (use of which is falling) does not illuminate anything much. These are drugs that have been with us for Millennia and Centuries respectively and have had the best part of a hundred years of largely unregulated aggressive commercial marketing behind them. It is also faintly amusing to read the phrase 'controlled drugs and alcohol and tobacco' given that it is actually alcohol and tobacco that are controlled and illegal drugs that have no controls at all - we abdicated control to gangsters and street dealers when we the decision was made to prohibit them.

The significant point here is that this has been a live issue for a number of years and in that time the Government has been able to assemble precisely zero credible evidence that lends support to the deterrent effect, and has undertaken or produced precisely zero published research to try and rectify this.

As Transform pointed out in its written submission to the Committee:

‘The [classification] system is based on the un-evidenced assumption that criminal penalties are an effective deterrent and that stronger penalties are a stronger deterrent’

There was no evidence to support this basic assumption when the policy was put in place 35 years ago and the Government's response to the Committee demonstrates that none has emerged subsequently. Transform further noted in its written submission to the Committee:

There is also no evidence to show that key target groups understand or pay any attention to the classification system or related announcements from the home secretary when making drug taking decisions. It can only be assumed that no research is commissioned on these key topics as it would expose policy failings.
The little independent research that has been done in this area suggests that the law and enforcement are, at best, marginal factors in drug taking decisions - especially for the most excluded groups; young people, those with mental health problems and those from socially deprived communities – who are most vulnerable to problematic use. Studies in Australia and the US have compared levels of cannabis use between different states with different enforcement regimes for cannabis offences (from harsh penalties to effective decriminalisation) and found no causal link between penalties and incidence of use.”

The fact that the massed ranks of Home Office civil servants and researchers can’t find any evidence from 35 years of data collection to show that the classification system works might suggest that, well, there isn’t any. Moreover, this striking lack of any evidence to show the classification system is effective is not deemed by the Government sufficient reason to even have a consultation on, or review of the the classification system, as recommended by the Select Committee. Not a change in policy – just a consultation. Just an open dialogue with independent experts who might be able to shed some light on this vexing lack of evidence. Maybe a little bit like the consultation on the classification system that the Home Secretary promised to the House of Commons in January this year.

But the Government has now reneged on this promised consultation, because it now ‘believes that the classification system discharges its function fully and effectively and has stood the test of time’. (they even underlined the 'has' to emphasise the point). Maybe Transform, Drugscope, The Police Foundation, The Home Affairs Select Committee and the Science and Technology Select Committee are missing something here, but ‘scientists’ or ‘statisticians’ might argue that the fact that trends in use of almost every major drug covered under the Misuse of Drugs Act have risen consistently since 1971, and the fact that drugs have become progressively cheaper and more available over the same period was not actually evidence of the classification system discharging its function fully and standing the test of time, but was actually evidence of the exact opposite. So can we have a consultation on this please? Maybe even the one that was fully drafted and ready to be sent out to experts across the country days before a new Home Secretary was appointed and apparently thought better of it? Apparently not.

Finally we are given a hint about how the Government intends to proceed on this thorny question, with its suggestion to the Science and Technology Committee that they ‘will consider ways in which the evidence base in the context of the deterrent effect can be strengthened’. This is a troubling turn of phrase. The Government should be doing objective research to see whether or not there is a deterrent effect, how it works, how strong it is, whom it effects and whether it justifies spending billions a year on criminalising and imprisoning lots of people - not seeking evidence to strengthen a pre-held ‘belief’ in such an effect. Call it cherry-picking, call it faith-based policy making, call it bad science; whichever way you look at it this is a course of action that would seem to jettison even the pretence of scientific method altogether and take the Government unambiguously into the realms of ideological propagandising, a place many would argue UK drug policy already inhabits.

The Science and Technology Committee asked for some evidence and received none. Transform have been asking for the same evidence for nearly ten years and still have yet to see any. Belief must be based on evidence, and if the Government can’t produce that evidence and then flatly refuses to engage in a dialogue on it, they shouldn’t be surprised when people stop believing them.

next ... Drug classification and 'sending out messages'

7 comments:

KarmaFrog said...

Fantastic reading, and I thoroughly agree. I just think the government doesn't want to admit that it has been wrong all these years, thus throwing away potential votes from alot of mainstream idiots out there. Soon er or later, they will learn just to cut their losses before they get laughed out of office.

daksya said...

I'm a legalizer but I think that prohibition in general has a solid deterrent effect.

The reason that changes in laws don't result in spikes in use is because prohibition has been in place for atleast a couple of generations and is a structural foundation in society. Many people believe complete nonsense about drugs because except for cannabis, only a tiny minority has firsthand experiences with drugs, and a not-so-tiny-but-still-a minority have direct observational experience of these other drugs. So when abstainers say that they avoid drugs purely because of health or similar reasons and not legal reasons, that is because of the long-term structural effects of prohibition. Once drugs become legally convenient, it will be easier to openly talk about drugs and especially positive/neutral experiences, and for current abstainers to see that even a lot of hard drug use does not end up in addiction or death. Thus there will be a general loosening effect that may happen probably gradually, but it could be somewhat quick. Eventually, cannabis lifetime incidence for the 16-24 cohort will catch up with alcohol, and for MDMA/cocaine, it will increase to substantial levels. Psychedelics will increase but still retain a lower profile, and opiates will probably retain a low profile for some time to come, but not forever.

Steve R said...

I dont think or suggest that there is no deterrent effect atall.

More that:

- the extent of such an effect is unknown and but appears to be marginal - there are clearly other far more significnat determinants of drug taking descisions
- the most vulnerable groups and people most likely to become problematic users are the least likely to be deterred
- given the centrality of such an effect to the prohibitionist position espoused by Government the evidence they can produce to support it is extremely poor, to the point of being non existant
- they have undertaken no research into this effect despite this being a live issue for years, one can only assume because they know what the evidence would show, and could not justify the huge enforcement expenditure off the back of it.
- the response to the commitee's perfectly reasonable point and concerns raised was disgracefully inadequate, an excercise in cynical spin and evasion and highly revealing of the poor evidence base for prohibition more generally

daksya said...

Steve, those 'other significant determinants' are shaped and sustained by Prohibition. Someone who avoids MDMA because she believes that it puts holes in the brain, does so because of the type of messages that dominate mainstream drug-discourse in a prohibitionist regime. Just look at the Herald's new article on pot, subtitled: "more dangerous than heroin". After legalization, when drug users, especially prominent figures, will be able to talk about these things much more candidly & directly, these "other significant determinants" may not hold nearly the same weight. The only group that will remain abstinent at large are the ones who avoid alcohol today.

To paint a concrete picture, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2004, of all those who think that smoking marijuana once a month carries "no risk" or "slight risk", 33.9% (27,132,174) have never used marijuana. Among this group, 54.7% have relatively easy access to marijuana, and the rest relatively difficult. Now why would this group, who think that occasional use presents very few problems, not have used marijuana at all? Now take cocaine, of all those who think that risk of using cocaine once a month is none or slight, 61.0% (14,728,081) have never used cocaine. Among this group, 31.1% find it relatively easy to get coke, the other 68.9% don't.

At the very least, you would expect the subset of easy-access & low-risk perceivers to be a small group, but they number at 10 million or more. I am ignoring the change in perceptions & availability after legalization.

daksya said...

Steve, those 'other significant determinants' are shaped and sustained by Prohibition. Someone who avoids MDMA because she believes that it puts holes in the brain, does so because of the type of messages that dominate mainstream drug-discourse in a prohibitionist regime. Just look at the Herald's new article on pot, subtitled: "more dangerous than heroin". After legalization, when drug users, especially prominent figures, will be able to talk about these things much more candidly & directly, these "other significant determinants" may not hold nearly the same weight. The only group that will remain abstinent at large are the ones who avoid alcohol today.

To paint a concrete picture, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2004, of all those who think that smoking marijuana once a month carries "no risk" or "slight risk", 33.9% (27,132,174) have never used marijuana. Among this group, 54.7% have relatively easy access to marijuana, and the rest relatively difficult. Now why would this group, who think that occasional use presents very few problems, not have used marijuana at all? Now take cocaine, of all those who think that risk of using cocaine once a month is none or slight, 61.0% (14,728,081) have never used cocaine. Among this group, 31.1% find it relatively easy to get coke, the other 68.9% don't.

At the very least, you would expect the subset of easy-access & low-risk perceivers to be a small group, but they number at 10 million or more. I am ignoring the change in perceptions & availability after legalization.

Steve R said...

Ive written a bit about these different factors in the Options for Control report - the section about concerns that looks at whether use would change after law changes. My point was that there are multiple variables that will push different populations in different directions and how the policy is implemented will influence many of thiese variables. I agree with you - but add that it is very complex and doesnt lend itself to generalisations, which is what we tend to get in soundbite media and political debate.

Also it is important to make a distinction between changes in harm and changes in reported use. Its a messy policy area for sure. The government/home office, I hope youll agree, has done nothing to illuminate it.

Bob said...

But is it use we wish to prevent or harm?

Would more people using pharmacy MDMA in a safer way be better or worse than what we have now?