Kathy Gyngell, author of a new Centre for Policy Studies report - 'The phoney war on drugs', is wrong to say we are losing the ‘war on drugs’; it is a rhetorical war that could never be won. And in (somewhat reluctant) defence of the UK Government, they have been distancing themselves from the terminology 'war on drugs' for some years, even the US is now moving away from the term. On that basis it is a somewhat strange rhetorical point to take issue with.
In some respects her critique, at least, is correct - current policy has indeed been an expensive failure (see Transform's cost-benefit analysis). The problem with Kathy's analysis is that whilst much of the problems are identified correctly, she misunderstands the causes and so her proposed solutions inevitably miss the mark - just as the 2007 Centre for Social justice Breakdown Britain report did (which Kathy co-authored, and of which her pamphlet is essentially a slimmed down polemic retread)
Kathy claims, ‘The UK has one of the most liberal drug policies in Europe. Both Sweden and the Netherlands (despite popular misconceptions) have a more rigorous approach.’
This comparison is disingenuous. Kathy argues that Sweden’s low levels of use result from high enforcement spending, yet next door Norway has a far more liberal regime, and similar levels of use. Greece has one fiftieth of the enforcement spend and the lowest level of drug use in Europe. Oddly, entwined with the condemnation of of the UK's (now reversed) 'declassification' (sic) of cannabis she also cites the Netherlands as an example of the way forward despite it offering a legally regulated supply of heroin for addicts, supervised injecting rooms, and de-facto legal supply of cannabis (yet still having lower levels of cannabis use than neighbouring countries, including the UK). Internationally - as Transform have pointed out to Kathy (see comments here for example)- there is no correlation between intensity of enforcement and levels of use, as a major WHO study made clear in its headline conclusion last year.
'Globally, drug use is not distributed evenly and is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones.'For every cherry-picked example of success another confounding example could be found. It is particularly striking that the US - the spiritual home of the drug war which spends a monumental $40 billion on enforcement yet is arguably the country with the worst drug problem in the developed world - is not mentioned in her report.
She also says, ‘The election of the Labour Government in 1997 marked a new direction for drug policy. It developed a “harm reduction” strategy which aimed to reduce the cost of problem drug use… This harm-reduction approach has failed. It has entrapped 147,000 people in state-sponsored addiction. Despite the £10 billion spent on the War on Drugs, the numbers emerging from government treatment programmes are at the same level as if there had been no treatment programme at all.’
Ignoring the fact that the harm reduction approach was pioneered by the Tories as a response the HIV epidemic, of course there are massive problems with the NTA and treatment system - the crime reduction agenda muscling out best practice in public health, an over-reliance on certain treatment modalities and so on, but to then conclude that 'harm reduction must be abandoned' is a dangerous case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. The almost evangelical commitment to abstinence based rehab - apparently at the exclusion of all else, and that being 'drug free' is the only measure of treatment/recovery success also feels ideologically rather than pragmatically driven. Unfortunately most health-led drug initiatives, be they prevention, treatment or education - only have fairly marginal impacts, even when they are done well (rare in the current political climate) - whilst supply side enforcement has decades of history of being actively counterproductive - worsening the problems it is designed to reduce.
In the long term if we want to reduce problematic drug use we will need to address its underlying social causes - poverty, inequality, and low levels of wellbeing. 'Prohibition doesn't work, so lets have more prohibition' is not a serious basis for moving forward, nor is replacing one form of politically skewed policy with another, (and reconsidering prohibition more widely and addressing inequality are not approaches that the Centre for Policy Studies is likely to get to excited about - regardless of evidence).
A principle error made by by advocates of prohibition is a failure to distinguish the harms caused by drug use from those caused or exacerbated by our attempts to stamp out their use. These policy harms, lets call them prohibition harms, include the creation of a vast global market controlled by criminal profiteers, the distortion of public health priorities, the diversion of resources away public health and investment in social capital into futile and counterproductive enforcement, and the maximisation of the health harms associated with drug use. The causes of the problems we face are rather more complicated than too much methadone and harm reduction, and not enough rehab, prevention, and enforcement.