According to the Governments own reviews they have been spending something in the region of 1 to 3 billion a year on drug enforcement (depending on how you measure it) - preventing the supply of drugs - with the express aim increasing the price of drugs as a way of deterring use. Increasing the price of drug may or may not deter use to the degree they suppose but that has been the plan. The particular target has been the two drugs identified by the Government as 'causing the most harm': heroin and cocaine. The big plan back in 1998 was to have reduced availability by 50%. By this week as fate would have it.
It would be easy to be fooled by the statistics put out by the Home Office that this endeavour has been broadly successful. More drugs are being seized we are told, usually in the form of how drugs are being 'prevented from reaching the streets'. We also learn that more drug gangs are being broken up, or 'smashed' as they like to say. Also, more criminal assets are being seized. Excellent. But what's all that got to do with reducing drug supply or availability? Measures that would actually give a real indication of heroin and cocaine availability have been studiously avoided by the Home Office and never seem to crop up in their publications, strategies, or consultation documents. Measures like drug prices, or surveys drug users - asking them highly technical questions like 'how available are heroin and cocaine?'. The Home Office deliberately uses 'availability' targets that are in no way measures of availability. (Call me cynical, but could it be they are trying to, whats the phrase I'm looking for...deceive us?)
Whilst we don't have much decent or consistent trend research in terms of drug user surveys (although we really should) we do have some pretty good drug price data, based on test purchases. This was most recently revealed, again, in a parliamentary answer last week, reproduced below:
Mr. Malins: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what the street price of (a) heroin and (b) cocaine was in each of the last 10 years. 
|UK Average Drug Prices 1997-2007|
|As at December:||Cocaine (per gram)||Heroin (per gram)|
So heroin and cocaine prices have almost halved - having spent 20 billion of so on attempts to increase them. During the same period of time the UK has achieved the dubious position of number one in Europe for both heroin and cocaine use, the latter of which has doubled, the former plateauing at a historic highpoint since 2001. Oh, and we have a disaterous crack epidemic which we didn't have back in 97.
Miserable news indeed. Not that you will hear the Home Office talking about it next week; it is unlikely to feature high in their press releases for next week's big new strategy launch, which will be awash with the familiar propaganda about how great its all gone and some earnest talk about not resting on laurels and needing to do more.
Interestingly this price drop means that the country's growing population of problematic heroin and cocaine users (who are, thanks to the illegal market distribution networks, largely superimposed) don't now have to commit quite so much crime to buy their drugs. As a result drug related crime may have fallen slightly. We cant be sure about this since 'drug related crime' isn't actually measured, as a number of other parliamentary answers have made very clear (more discussion here). We will, however, hear a lot about this (unmeasured) fall in 'drug related crime' this week from the Home Office, credit for which will be give to the Government's new drug treatment programmes even though there is no evidence to suggest this is the real reason - the evidence of treatment outcomes is actually pretty terrible, with over 80% re-offending within two years. But the drop in crime is much more likely to be a fortunate side effect of the utter failure of that cheeky 20 billion or so in supply side spending to increase drug prices.
Cheaper drugs mean less crime committed by dependent users. Take this to its logical conclusion and you get; free drugs means no crime committed by dependent users (well, not to buy drugs anyway). Even though prices have been falling let us not forget that prices of heroin and cocaine are still inflated by over 3000% because of prohibition - turning low value processed agricultural products into criminal commodities literally worth more than their weight in gold. Still, given that 30,000 or so high harm causing dependent users are responsible for over half of all property crime, accruing something in the region of 16 billion a year in crime costs the idea of expanding the facility for controlled maintenance prescribing starts to become rather more appealing.
Spending 3 billion a year to create a further 16 billion in crime costs just doesn't seem like great value for money.
Maybe we should be having a serious debate about the policy alternatives instead of the sham policy consultation we were subjected to last year. Maybe if we invested that 3 billion in evidence based public health interventions: prevention and education, treatment, helping people rebuild their lives, addressing the social deprivation that underlies most problematic use and so on - then the number of problem users might actually start to fall, and if we took the illegal market out of the hands of gangsters and street dealers and brought it within the law then some of the terrible harms it creates might be reduced. How bad does it have to get before we have a serious debate on policy alternatives?
A good to start would have been for the Home Office to tell the truth about what's working and what isn't. But don't hold your breath during the new strategy launch this week. It will be a miserable stage-managed regurgitation of the old failed strategy with a bit of cosmetic window dressing. No debate, no new ideas, no change, no hope.