Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The White House and Cocaine

In 2005 the White House Drugs Czar, John Walters, claimed success in the ‘War on Drugs’, on the basis that cocaine prices were increasing and quality falling - clear indicators of a reduction in supply. A reduction in supply can be caused by a number of factors, but the Drugs Czar claimed it as an enforcement success, perhaps foolishly in retrospect, given that any change in fortune might correspondingly be held up as a failure.

As Transform point out in their soon to be published handbook “After the War on drugs, Tools for the Debate”:

‘never let anyone claim that supply side enforcement is effective without a very robust challenge – the evidence against this assertion is clear, overwhelming and acknowledged by all credible sources, official and independent’.

Apparent short-term successes often mask longer-term trends. They can also be due to (non-policy related) external factors, changes in statistical collection or methodology, and sometimes a marginal change can be within statistical error parameters. This sort of cherry picking can be countered by bringing the focus back to the bigger picture statistics on the failure of the policy nationally and internationally (be careful to make sure the blame is on the policy makers, not those who are implementing policy– the police do their job as best they can, it just happens to be an impossible one). Also remind policy makers that it is the policy of prohibition that created the crime and illegal markets in the first place’.
In a recent report, The Washington Office of Latin America demonstrates that the ‘gains’ of 2005 were short-lived. They say “preliminary U.S. government data, quietly disclosed by ONDCP, indicate that cocaine’s price per pure gram on U.S. streets fell in 2006, while its purity increased”. They also note that this is the continuation of a 25-year trend:

This graph, starkly revealing the true and shocking failure of cocaine interdiction over the past three decades, will seem eerily familiar to beady-eyed drug policy nerds in the UK. The exact same graph appeared in the report commissioned by Tony Blair in 2003 from the No10 Strategy Unit:

Not that UK policy makers will broadcast the fact or publicly admit that international supply side drug enforcement has been an abject and total failure. Indeed the Strategy Unit report, repleat with inconvenient truths, remained resolutely unpublished until partially released under FOI pressure in 2005 and then leaked in full to the Guardian the following day.

You would also be hard pushed to appreciate the scale of the failure from the laughably misleading cherry-picked propaganda that the Home Office publishes under its list of drug strategy 'successes' on drug supply and availability (in which the above graph most certainly does not appear). It’s all somewhat at odds with the Prime Minister's 2003 report that concluded unambiguously that

“Over the past 10-15 years, despite interventions at every point in the supply chain, cocaine and heroin consumption has been rising, prices falling and drugs have continued to reach users. Government interventions against the drug business are a cost of business, rather than a substantive threat to the industry's viability.

As we approach a key juncture in UK drug policy with the new drug strategy being formulated, this sort of spin and misleading data does no one in domestic or international policy making any favours. Running away from the truth because it is politically risky will only lead to the further entrenchment of failed and counterproductive policy, and a supply side drug strategy as expensive and disastrous as all the previous ones.

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