Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Phoney Argument For a New Drug War

This detailed critique of the Centre for Policy Studies report 'The Phoney War on Drugs' was prepared by Axel Klein, Lecturer in the Study of Addictive Behaviour, Centre for Health Service Studies, University of Kent.
For politicians, wavering between ‘honest debates’ and the need for ‘sending out messages’ the subject of ‘drugs’ is risky and unpredictable. Soon after coming into office and heading down another loop in the spiral of unpopularity, Gordon Brown and his hapless Home Secretary Jacqui Smith* decided on a show of strength by moving cannabis from Class C to class B. The decision was made in spite of falling rates of cannabis use and a drop in the number of young people becoming entangled with the law because of petty drug offences. There was some discussion about a possible correlation between cannabis use and psychosis, figures on THC content, but the main purpose lay in “sending out a signal that cannabis is not only illegal but it is unacceptable."  
Moving drugs from the contested arena of evidence based policy to the nebulous realm of morality entailed dangers that were not anticipated at the time. But as the Spanish historian on drugs Antonio Escohotado warned long ago, the politicisation of moral values lays politicians open to charges of hypocrisy and sectarianism.
Once framed in moral terms, governments are at further risk of being outflanked. New Labour came into office with a rational strategy focussing on the cycle of drug fuelled offending by providing treatment of problematic users and a greater degree of tolerance towards recreational use. It combined a hard-nosed recognition of the normalisation of illicit drug use with a gamble on the effectiveness of treatment. The approach was canny, leaving little room for the Tories to carve out a distinctive position. They could either expose themselves as being hopelessly out of touch with current realities, like Anne Widdecombe’s call for on the spot fines, or get bogged down on technical issues. In the Addictions Report of the Social Justice Policy Review for the Conservative Party, the social policy framework put together under the auspices of Ian Duncan Smith, government drug policy is critiqued for prioritizing harm reduction. While attacking the prevailing treatment model of maintenance, based on an extraordinary expansion of methadone at the expense of abstinence oriented treatment, the document subscribes to the primary importance of treatment. There is tacit agreement that drug problems are as much a public health as a criminal justice issue.
This consensus has unwittingly been destroyed by the downgrading of evidence based policy, opening a door for the return of ethical posturing and vested interests in this most emotive of issues. One of the authors of the Addictions Report, Kathy Gyngell, has just released a timely follow-up in an 80 page document lambasting the failure of the New Labour drug strategy. Presented in the guise a scientific paper with a scattering of references and copious use of statistical data, "The Phoney War on Drugs" seeks to shift the debate on drugs onto new ground. It sets out with a familiar theme that drugs policy has failed, by repeating the earlier critique on methadone maintenance, followed by several indices for rising drug use, their associated problems and an attack on ineffectual prevention methods. It combines the critique into a broad assault on the idea of harm reduction, as a “new direction for drug policy” under the Labour government. Here history is effortlessly being rewritten with cavalier disregard for inconvenient fact, to blot out the origin of needle exchanges and the very concept of harm reduction during the Thatcher era.
The report then moves to the key theme adumbrated in the title. Britain’s drug problems are caused not by the criminalisation of a number of popular behaviour forms, but by the lack of enforcement of the laws. The ground is laid out in the summary with the claim that “the UK has one of the most liberal drug policies in Europe.” All problems, it is then argued, flow from there hence the need for a radical tilt towards a more punitive approach. But how liberality is measured and how this claim is supported is unclear. Unlike Germany, Switzerland, or the Netherlands the UK does not have any drug consumption rooms. It has not decriminalised the possession of small quantities of drugs like the above plus Belgium, Portugal, Italy and Spain. The sentences meted out for drug offences are among the longest and have contributed to the highest prison population per 100,000 in Western Europe. Standing at 15.5% in England and Wales the proportion of drug offenders as the total of the prison population is lower than in Luxembourg and Malta but higher than France or Russia. There are 21 countries with a lower percentage of drug offenders among the prison population and 13 with more. The report skates over the question why in spite of a tough stance on drugs and hefty penalties drug use has continued to rise in the UK, and moves on to claim that the country faces a “widening crises”
This has apparently been allowed to happen by, inter alia, cannabis being “declassified”, and the chronic underfunding of enforcement. There are obvious methodological and epistemological weaknesses in this assertion. The cited drug seizures statistics are at best a proxy for drug imports. Gyngell is confident, however, that the falling tonnage of drug seizures has resulted in wider availability. She stipulates further that drugs, once available, will be used. There is no recognition of cultures of consumption, of questions of social acceptability or of the normalisation of drug consumption among wide swathes of the population. Market economic principles about demand producing the supply, are swept aside with the simplistic argument that drugs once available will be used. These assumptions are not made explicit nor alternative explanations discussed. Would it not be possible that the fall in seizures mirrors a drop in demand or currency fluctuations?
What the paper recommends, therefore, is to reallocate resources towards supply reduction. No evidence is presented why this is effective, nor do the costs of enforcement find a mention. There is a blasé indifference to the impact of mass criminalisation on individuals, their families and communities, where prison induced stigmatisation locks cohorts of young people into criminality. The ineffectiveness of draconian penalties in shutting down supply routes is skipped over, and the reader looks in vain for a costing of criminal justice process, incarceration and subsequent reintegration. Carefully calibrated assessments of costs and benefits, as by the Sentencing Advisory Panel are dismissed as defeatist. The efficacy of tough penalties is asserted with adamantine rectitude that scorns the need for explanation. We are taken back to the claim by an earlier Home Secretary that “prison works.” This report continues the ignoble task of identifying scapegoats for policy failure and broken community. It is quite accurate that the extensive problems outlined in the report – broken families, young people doing drugs and crime, poor education, neighbourhood blight – have no parallel in Sweden or the Netherlands. But by attributing these differences to the more vigorous enforcement of drug control in two famously comprehensive welfare states, Gyngell misrepresents social policy to comical effect. The fact that the UK does score low on all manner of social indicators, is the downside of its market economy and the untrammelled discrepancy in living standards. The relatively high rates of drug related problems can be marshalled as another index of deprivation and social exclusion, not their cause.
The report then moves to suggest its own remedy for healing the cracks in breakdown Britain – increasing the penalties for drug offences and widening the net of enforcement. Once again, the author plays fast and loose with the facts, claiming that Dutch and Swedish policies demonstrate that harsh penalties are effective deterrents. What the Dutch experience could alternatively be said to demonstrate is that it is not the sentences that deter but comprehensive controls. Up until two years ago drug traffickers carrying less than 3 kilograms of cocaine from Aruba, Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles were held for up to a week and deported. It was realised that it was the certainty of arrest and seizure of the drugs that was the deterrent not the penalty for the courier.
What is extraordinary about a report calling for an intensification of the war on drugs is its timing. It appeared in the same week that the man appointed to take on the Office on National Drug Policy in the US, the country with the greatest stock of experience in a robust approach to drugs, has called for a ceasefire. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Mr. Kerlikowske made clear that the government did not want to wage a war on its own people. Not only is the social cost colossal, with over 500,000 people in US prisons for drug offences, but the results as released by the Institute of Defence Analysis are disappointing: cocaine’s annual average US retail price per pure gram in 2007 was 22% lower than in 1999.
Yet it is precisely for failing to wage the war for real that Gyngell takes the government to task. If we only shifted the priorities within the drug control budget and allocated more than the current £380 million or 28% of the total to law enforcement the war could be won.
As a policy document the report is reminiscent of the anti-drug propaganda put out by civil society organisations in the US during the 1990s and early 2000s. They succeeded in diverting much government funding for notoriously ineffective ‘prevention’ activities like the notorious Drug Abuse Resistance Education, drug testing in schools and the systematic exclusion of convicted drug users from social benefits. Given the costs in terms of social costs and the tax burden imposed by the vast American prison and security system it seems extraordinary that this call is now made in a cash strapped UK. The report, unusually in the UK discussion on drugs, refers to ‘abusers’, makes no attempt to understand the massive popularity of illicit drugs in spite of the risks involved, and ridicules the definition of addiction as a relapsing condition as a conspiracy by the treatment sector. It makes ill found assertions about the causal relationship between drugs, crime and anti social behaviour, and misinterprets policies in Sweden and the Netherlands.
What is missing, interestingly for a CPS report, is any material from the US. But then Ethan Nadelmann the President of the US Drug Policy Alliance has warned us, that looking to the US for inspiration on drug policy is like taking advice on race relations from Apartheid South Africa. What the American war on drugs has alerted us to however, is how particular policies are interwoven with vested interests. Gyngell’s report follows on the heels of claims by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency to have driven up the price of cocaine with its interceptions. Precisely the kind of activity Gyngell would like to see extended. There is a strong likelihood that in anticipation of a new government forming within the year, interest groups like the Prison and Addictions Forum are now jockeying for office and influence in the new drug control establishment. The prize is mentioned in the fourth line of the document, the annual Government spend on drug policy. Interestingly for a report published by what was once the hothouse of Neo-liberalism, it is not the very disposal of resources appropriated from the tax payer for this purpose that the report puts into question, but its distribution. Gyngell would like to shift it from front line services work to pay for naval vessels and x ray machines at airports. With a bit more effort the war on drugs can be won and the unintended consequences discussed later.
The conceptual weaknesses of the report are compounded by factual errors. Lower prevalence rates of drug use and overdose in the Netherlands are attributed to hard enforcement, when the demonized practice of ‘harm reduction’ remains cornerstone of Dutch policy, with drug consumption rooms, pill testing and the depenalization of cannabis retail in coffee-shops. Nothing shows more clearly how effective a liberal approach has been in reducing drug related harm. Contrary to the report, cannabis was never ‘declassified’ but reclassified into class C, and the powers of arrest retained. Public funds spent on routine policing, court costs and incarceration are factored out from the equation. It is clear from the challenge to Christine Godfrey’s estimate of the costs of illicit drug use that the author has a sophisticated understanding of the complexity of estimating costs and impact, but such uncertainties are never conceded in the presentation of data to support the argument.
Supported by dubious argument and the eclectic use of figures, Gyngell calls for a radical shift in drug policy. Treatment is not working, the National Treatment Agency is an ineffective quango, and we should pour more money into punishment. Before the reclassification of cannabis a descent of discussion to this level would have been hard to imagine. One can only hope that Conservative drug policy has other sources of inspiration to draw on.
Axel Klein, May 2009


Dante Cymru said...

Decidedly a piece of work of indifferent quality by Gyngell - more policy-based evidence making?

As for her 28% of drug war costs for enforcement - that seems a serious under-estimate - other estimates suggest 70 - 80% for the largely counter-productive contribution of the criminal justice system. How does that square with Transform's cost benefit study estimates?

A warning for the Conservatives. They can appear ignorant like the Brown Government if they wish. But drugs are a bellwether issue. If the Tories take a hardline approach - which will fail anyway - they will immediately start to lose support from thinking people (again).

Brown's demise began when he turned his back on scientific advice from the ACMD in favour of prejudice and a dubious moral posture. Cameron should consult more widely - perhaps with his putative coalition partner Nick Clegg would be a good start... And personal freedom is hardly tested by victimless pseudo-crimes.

A more pragmatic approach might have been to look at what works and understand it clearly and honestly Ms Gyngell... Don't forget the US next time either - under Obama, not Bush!

Dante Cymru

Niall said...

She seems to use the same logic as other on the right that I've heard and thought absurd eg:
* the current financial crisis was caused by too much regulation not too little
* school shootings in the USA are caused not by too many guns but too few as if people were armed in school they could stop them
She'd have done well in the Bush administration.