Thursday, July 16, 2009

PM hears case for Impact Assessment of drug laws

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has held an important meeting with drugs policy campaigning group Transform, and Lembit Öpik, Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire to hear the case for an impact assessment of drug laws.

Danny Kushlick, Head of Policy and Communications at Transform Drug Policy Foundation said after the meeting:
"Impact assessment is a standard tool in Government for scrutinising policy and exploring alternative options that could achieve better outcomes. Our drug laws have not been assessed effectively since their enactment nearly forty years ago and the world is a very different place now."

"I am confident that over the coming months and years, the drug laws will receive the level of parliamentary scrutiny currently reserved for the introduction of new legislation. Impact assessment offers us all a major opportunity to reframe the drug policy debate in a less emotive and more productive manner."

"We are extremely grateful to the Prime Minister for considering our request. Mr. Brown was interested to hear about the
2003 No.10 Strategy Unit Report which he had not seen, which
shows that supply side enforcement cannot work in the long term, and actually creates huge collateral damage."

Commenting after the meeting, Lembit Öpik said:

"While the Prime Minister didn't commit to implementing our request there and then, I am satisfied that he truly did listen. The impact assessment won't happen tomorrow, but this meeting is a start of a serious dialogue. We don't want to bully anyone into going along with this research - nor could we! But I'm confident that in the months ahead we will persuade the government that this is in everyone's interests, and I'm extremely grateful to the Prime Minister for holding this meeting to hear our case."

Lembit Öpik added: "Overall, the Prime Minister had a useful discussion with the delegation. No commitment has at this stage been made, but he clearly takes seriously any proposals which have the potential to help us address the misuse of drugs, and all the associated social and health costs which go with it."

Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of “The Spirit Level”, said;
"I support the Transform Drug Policy Foundation initiative and urge the government to undertake an impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act."
Notes to editors

1. An analysis of the 2003 No10 Strategy Unit Report can be read here

2. Richard Wilkinson is Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology at Nottingham University, author of 'Unequal societies; the afflictions of inequality', and co-author, with Kate Pickett, of ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’

3. Government guidelines on Impact Assessments are available here

Here is the briefing note that Transform gave to Mr Brown:

Towards Effective Drug Policy: Time for an Impact Assessment

Transform Drug Policy Foundation
Transform is a think-tank that campaigns for sustainable well being, promoting the replacement of prohibition with effective and humane systems to regulate drugs.

The UK Government should lead the world by carrying out an Impact Assessment (IA) of domestic drugs prohibition, starting with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and related legislation. An IA should model all the alternatives including stepping up prohibition, Portuguese-style decriminalisation, and legal regulation. The EC and UN should undertake a similar exercise internationally to incorporate impacts on producer and transit countries, and ensure drug policy no longer undermines human development, human security and human rights.

Basis for recommendation
  • Despite the billions spent each year, evidence from around the globe, (including the PM’s Strategy Unit Drugs Report of 2003 ) shows the prohibitionist approach to drugs has consistently delivered the opposite of its stated goals, with the poor and marginalised hit hardest.
  • The Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime also admits the international drug control system has massive ‘unintended consequences’ including: creating a huge criminal market; displacing policy from health to enforcement; and geographical displacement (the ‘balloon effect’).
  • At a time of economic stricture, it is crucial that drugs expenditure is cost-effective, with all potential alternatives meaningfully explored. Transform’s cost-benefit analysis (based on Government data) shows a move to legal regulation and control could:
o Save the UK billions of pounds to spend on other priorities
o Halve property crime and the prison population
o Remove a huge obstacle to development and security in Afghanistan and beyond
  • Using Impact Assessment as a guiding tool would help end the emotive and polarised debate around drug policy reform, and enable politicians to genuinely engage with the search for better alternatives.

We all share the common goal of a drug policy that maximises environmental, physical, psychological and social wellbeing worldwide. Yet, whether viewed internationally or domestically, the prohibitionist approach has seen drug supply and availability increasing; use of drugs that cause the most harm increasing; health harms increasing; and massive levels of crime leading to a crisis in our criminal justice systems. Illicit drug profits are enriching criminals, fuelling conflict and undermining security and development in producer and transit countries from Mexico and Guinea Bissau, to Afghanistan and Colombia, with the gravest impacts falling upon the poor and marginalised.

Whilst the UNODC acknowledges the high costs of prohibition, it has so far neglected to count them, or model alternatives. Similarly, the Home Office acknowledges that legal regulation of drug markets would have benefits , but claims they would be outweighed by the costs. Yet no such cost-benefit analysis has ever been carried out in the UK, or anywhere else. Value for money studies commissioned in 2007 remain unpublished.

The UK could take the lead by carrying out an objective, independent, national assessment, comparing current policy with the alternatives; encourage other consumer, producer and transit countries to follow suit; and call for international assessments by the EC and UN.

A UK Impact Assessment
In the UK, drug legislation has changed little since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) which has for many years been colliding with dramatically changed circumstances, including a massive increase in the use of illegal drugs, and a correspondingly huge illegal market, compounded by globalisation. As a result, a root and branch review is long overdue, and an Impact Assessment of the MDA should form the first step in genuinely assessing the UK’s approach to drugs.

Through allowing the outcomes of any government intervention to be assessed against the goals it is supposed to meet, along with modelling alternatives, IA is a sophisticated tool to strengthen evidence-based policy-making, improve accountability and transparency, and enable more informed public and parliamentary debate. Typically IAs now consider the potential or actual impacts (positive and negative) of a policy in terms of the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental.

An IA aimed at helping to deliver evidence-based policy - behind which all stakeholders can unite - would put all options on the table, without committing any stakeholder to a specific position: from stepping up prohibition, through decriminalisation, to legal regulation and control. In addition to current mechanisms for regulating the supply of legal drugs and intoxicants, there are a variety of existing approaches to dealing with illicit drugs. These include Portugal’s decriminalisation of possession of drugs since 2001 (widely hailed as a success, including by the UNODC), the long-term large-scale maintenance prescription of heroin in Switzerland, and the Netherlands ‘coffee-shop’ system for cannabis.

The application of IA for ex post evaluation of this kind has been less common than its use in ex ante assessment of proposed new measures. However, there is now recognition of the need for more evaluation work of this kind, for example in the European Commission work on IA.

When an entire UK Act is subject to Impact Assessment it is often broken down into smaller sections each of which has a separate IA. For example the Police and Crime Bill currently before Parliament has twenty separate IAs addressing different aspects.

The UNODC currently send out a biannual survey to member countries as part of its information gathering for the World Drug Report. Transform would like to see this include a template with questions for a country level IA, which could be collated as the basis for a global IA.

An Impact Assessment is Overdue
An IA of drug policy would be in line with Government guidelines. For example, the Treasury Green Book states that: " policy, programme or project is adopted without first having the answer to these questions: (1) Are there better ways to achieve this objective? (2) Are there better uses for these resources?"

More specifically, BERR IA guidelines say that all new legislation and policy changes with a cost or benefit to the public, private or third sectors greater than £5 million require the relevant government department to conduct an IA. This threshold has been crossed by many individual drug related interventions, and a number of other triggers have been pulled including: “When review leads to the identification of new policy challenges (perhaps arising from unintended consequences of the intervention itself), the [IA] process begins again."

Similarly, the National Audit Office 2001 guide ‘Modern Policymaking: Ensuring policies deliver value for money’ states: “Departments…need to review policies, for example to determine when the time is right to modify a policy in response to changing circumstances so that it remains relevant and cost effective; and departments may need to terminate policies if they are no longer cost effective or they are not delivering the policy outcomes intended.”

As previously noted there are huge unintended consequences of the current drug control system, and evidence shows the MDA is not delivering what it was supposed to - for example a twenty-fold increase in heroin use.

There is a UK precedent for using IA to compare prohibition with decriminalisation or legal regulation of drugs. The 2005 Drugs Act had an Impact Assessment of the proposal to make Magic Mushrooms a Class A drug, including the option of allowing licensed sales.

For too long the debate around drugs policy reform has been paralysed and polarised. An Impact Assessment offers an objective, independent and neutral tool for enabling key stakeholders to work together to create a drug policy fit for the 21st Century.

See also from the Transform blog:


Anonymous said...

Well we can always hope...

...but something tells me we shouldn't hold our breath.

Mikhail said...

Congratulations on the get, this is great news!

Anonymous said...

Well I guess Lembit Opik has plenty of experiences when it comes to addiction, with alcoholism haven't blighted his own family for so long. As well as his brother, he lost his best friend to alcoholism. All that's required now is for LO to get real about his own problems.

Derek said...

Well, Gordon didn't take much notice of the impact assessment regarding cannabis reclassification, so don't hold your breath.

Sad to say it's an easy promise to make to agree to look at something long term when you know there isn't a long term left fro your government.

And did he really say he wasn't aware of the 2003 report? How is that possible?

Martin Powell said...

In an ideal world Gordon Brown would know about the 2003 No.10 report, but the reality is he had other priorities then, and has not really looked at drug policy since. The Government's response has been a knee-jerk one aimed at appearing tough on crime.

It is a reminder that those who want a genuinely effective drugs policy will have to find different routes to keep repeating the messages, the benefits, pointing out the evidence again and again ad nauseam. Not just every time a politician is new in post, but afterwards to keep the issue high on their agenda.

But that's the nature of political campaigning, is exactly what we are trying to do here at Transform, and hope readers of this blog will help us to do.

the prof speaks sh*te said...

The real question though is whether you have been able to have similar discussions with David Cameron. Brown will be out of office in about 10 months time, whereas Cameron could be PM for the next decade. I'm not holding my breath, to be honest.

Chris said...

Congratulation in even getting to speak to Brown. Like others have said though, his words are cheap considering he's unlikely to be around much longer.

Lets just keep informing all of the MPs across the board. Surely sooner or later they will start to talk about this between themselves, even if its only over a fag round the back of westminster (and i mean cigarette).

Steve Rolles said...

We will be trying to get meetings with all parties on this issue of course, but a PM meeting certainly warrants a blog post.

Anonymous said...

Excellent work Transform. Good to see the debate around all drugs and not just cannabis (IMO a over-hyped drug). Policy should be focused on all drugs.

Well done