This short response to today's UKDPC report appears in the Guardian's Comment is free section. Comments can be posted on the Guardian site for the next three days. The online copy is an edited version of the submitted text and the title and subheading are by the copy editors.
Legalisation is a no-go area
A report on drug policy, like so many before it, fails to recognise the simple fact that prohibition is actually part of the problemSteve Rolles. Wednesday July 30 2008
The publication today by the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) of its thorough review of existing literature on the failure of efforts to tackle the supply of illegal drugs, whilst welcome, is yet another example of a report that fails to notice the elephant in the room. Prohibition and its enforcement not only fails to restrict the availability of drugs but is itself the root cause of many of the most significant drug-related harms.
For the UK's lawmakers and enforcers it will make yet more grim reading, telling a familiar story of the systemic failure of UK supply-side drug enforcement to have any positive impact, with drugs becoming progressively cheaper, more available and more widely used over the past four decades. Whilst usefully restated, this critique is nothing new, following in the footsteps of numerous other reports including those from the Police Foundation (2000), the Number 10 strategy unit (2003) and the RSA (2007).
All of these reports, however, suffer from the same conceptual flaw: they begin their analysis with the assumption that prohibition is a given rather than a policy option. It is not just that enforcement of prohibitions on drug production and supply are merely expensive and ineffective, or even that they often have disastrous unintended consequences, but rather that their enforcement actually creates the problem in the first instance. Failing to acknowledge the primary role prohibition has in creating the problems of illegal markets dooms any policy recommendations that follow.
The UKDPC report, for example, highlights how more strategic enforcement may be able to reduce the negative social impacts of drug dealing by shifting it geographically or changing dealing behaviors (from open street markets to less bothersome closed markets). Whilst these changes, if they can be achieved (and the report cautions that even here the evidence is flimsy), would be beneficial, there is something self-defeating and illogical about trying to minimise the harm caused by enforcement inside a framework that works to maximise it. It is effectively a policy at war with itself.
It is disappointing that when the UKDPC report does touch on the policy alternatives to absolute prohibition it does so only very briefly, with a mention of the legalisation debate tucked away in its final paragraph. When the report's most optimistic conclusion is that better enforcement may be able to "at least ameliorate the harms associated with visible drug markets", it's a shame that an opportunity to explore alternatives – legal regulation and control of drug production and supply that would largely eliminate these socially corrosive illegal markets – was missed.
The broader calls for a greater focus on public health and better evaluation of the outcomes of enforcement policy are obviously sensible, but if we are to have any progress beyond "marginally less disastrous" thinking about policy, we have to look further than prohibition. The contemporary reality that certain drugs can only be purchased from unregulated, untaxed and uncontrolled criminals is the result of policy choices. By treating the debate on alternatives to maintaining organised crime's monopoly as a no-go area, this report helps entrench the view that the basic tenets of prohibition cannot be challenged. In doing so it actually helps perpetuate the policy whose failure it describes so eloquently.