Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Home Affairs Committee: New Cocaine Trade Inquiry

The UK Parliament's Home Affairs Committee is launching an inquiry into the cocaine trade - I have copied their press release below with the remit. 

We would have welcomed a wider ranging inquiry into drugs policy, but there is still plenty of scope for the Committee to review evidence about the devastating impact of prohibition, from the streets of the UK to those of Guinea Bissau and Colombia, and to explore alternatives. 

Transform gave evidence the last time they did a major drug inquiry, when David Cameron MP was a Committee member. The resulting report The Government's Drugs Policy: Is it Working? (2002)  included the recommendation:

24. We recommend that the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma.

One of the areas the Committee will no doubt be looking into will be the Serious and Organised Crime Agency's recent claims to be winning the war on cocaine, which has been refuted by a couple of authors on this blog: "Clutching at Straws - SOCA Claims it is Winning the War on Cocaine"  and "How cocaine markets have been hit by the financial crises".

Home Affairs Committee News Release

Committee Office, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA

Media Enquiries: Jessica Bridges Palmer 020 7219 0724 / 07917 488 447

Cocaine trade 

The Home Affairs Committee is today announcing the scope of its investigation into the  Cocaine Trade, The Committee intends to investigate the trends in cocaine use in the UK, and progress in tackling the cocaine trade, in terms of reducing both supply and demand in the UK. 

The inquiry will focus in particular on the following issues: 

  • whether cocaine powder is now a street drug rather than just one used recreationally by the relatively well-to-do
  • the influence of ‘celebrity cocaine culture’ as criticised in the UNODC’s critical report on the UK last year
  • The effectiveness of advertising campaigns in deterring use
  • Trends in the use of crack cocaine
  • International collaboration: the responses of the producer countries
  • International collaboration: the EU’s external borders
  • International collaboration: effects on the transit countries
  • SOCA’s role
  • HMRC’s role
  • The police response: possession and dealing

The Committee is seeking written submissions of no more than 2,500 words from interested parties, before it takes oral evidence on this inquiry. Organisations and individuals interested in making written submissions are invited to do so by Friday 12th June 2009. Further advice on making a submission can be found below. 

Oral evidence sessions will be held on Tuesdays in June and July: further announcements will be made in due course.


Written evidence should if possible be in Word or rich text format—not PDF format—and sent by e-mail to The use of colour and expensive-to-print material, e.g. photographs, should be avoided. The body of the e-mail must include a contact name, telephone number and postal address. The e-mail should also make clear who the submission is from.

Submissions must address the terms of reference. They should be in the format of a self-contained memorandum. Paragraphs should be numbered for ease of reference, and the document must include an executive summary. Further guidance on the submission of evidence can be found at

Submissions should be original work, not previously published or circulated elsewhere, though previously published work can be referred to in a submission and submitted as supplementary material. Once submitted, your submission becomes the property of the Committee and no public use should be made of it unless you have first obtained permission from the Clerk of the Committee.

Please bear in mind that the Committee is not able to investigate individual cases.

The Committee normally, though not always, chooses to publish the written evidence it receives, either by printing the evidence, publishing it on the internet or making it publicly available through the Parliamentary Archives. If there is any information you believe to be sensitive you should highlight it and explain what harm you believe would result from its disclosure; the Committee will take this into account in deciding whether to publish or further disclose the evidence.

For data protection purposes, it would be helpful if individuals wishing to submit written evidence send their contact details in a covering letter or e-mail. You should be aware that there may be circumstances in which the House of Commons will be required to communicate information to third parties on request, in order to comply with its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The remit of the Home Affairs Committee is to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Home Office and its associated public bodies. 

Session 2008–09/57                                                                     21 May 2009

Notes to editors:

The Committee membership is as follows:


Rt Hon Keith Vaz (Chairman) (Lab) (Leicester East)

Tom Brake  (Lib Dem) (Carshalton & Wallington)              Margaret Moran (Lab) (Luton South)

Ms Karen Buck (Lab) (Regent’s Park & Kensington North)  Mr Gwyn Prosser (Lab) (Dover)

Mr James Clappison (Con) (Hertsmere)                         Bob Russell (Lib Dem) (Colchester)

Mrs Ann Cryer (Lab) (Keighley)                                    Martin Salter (Lab) (Reading West)

Mr David T. C. Davies (Con) (Monmouth)                      Mr Gary Streeter (Con) (South West Devon)

Mrs Janet Dean (Lab) (Burton)                                    Mr David Winnick (Lab) (Walsall North)

Patrick Mercer (Con) (Newark)


Media Enquiries: Jessica Bridges Palmer, Tel 020 7219 0724, email: 

Specific Committee Information:  Tel 020 7219 3276, email:

Committee Website:

Watch committees and parliamentary debates online:

Publications / Reports / Reference Material: 

Copies of all select committee reports are available from the Parliamentary Bookshop (12 Bridge St, Westminster, 020 7219 3890) or the Stationery Office (0845 7023474). Committee reports, press releases, evidence transcripts, Bills; research papers, a directory of MPs, plus Hansard (from 8am daily) and much more, can be found on

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Prohibition doesn't work, so lets have more prohibition!

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)

Drug misuse is largely a reflection of broader socio-economic and cultural trends and has little to do with drug policy, either public health or enforcement. High levels of misuse are most closely correlated with high levels of inequality and low levels of wellbeing and have nothing to do with how liberal a countries regime is.

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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How cocaine markets have been hit by the financial crises

The following commentary on the recent SOCA report has been prepared for the Transform Blog by Axel Klein, Lecturer in the Study of Addictive Behaviour, Centre for Health Service Studies, University of Kent.

On May 12th a government agency reported that rising levels of dangerous adulterants including boric acid, an insecticide, and tetramisole hydrochloride used as worm powder are being added to cocaine sold in UK drug markets. This is alarming as the largest group of consumers in UK retail markets are 16-24 year olds. It seems extraordinary that the exposure of school children and students to toxic substances sold in an unregulated market, with minimal information about content or health risk is the direct result of government policy.

Whatever the unintended consequences, SOCA, the agency that is responsible for stopping the inflow of cocaine into the UK, is celebrating the success of its undercover work manifest in the ‘wholesale’ cocaine price rise. Retail prices have, alas, not changed, but SOCA points to decreases in purity which are attributed to rises in overall prices and concomitantly, a stipulated reduction in overall inflows. Both these trends are apparently a direct result of SOCA activity in the UK, and Europe wide operations, with or without SOCA. This follows from the reported increase in overall seizures and an even sharper rise in overall arrests related to drug trafficking.

So what are the consequences of this 'success'? One is already noted, the increasing adulteration of street cocaine – the substance that people snort up their noses or smoke in rocks of crack. Where these adulterants are toxic they increase the health harm to users whose continuation of use is not affected by the supply cuts up the supply chain. Retail markets remain unaffected and continue to respond to consumer demand. What is sold is a more dangerous, diluted product which will first cause health damages to some users, and may secondly well increase the incidence of use, as consumers compensate through stepping up episodes of consumption. Most affected will be the consumption of dependent users outside of effective treatment, who will increase their dosage to riskier levels in compensation of diminishing potency. The minority of intensive and chaotic users with no legitimate means of income to fund their habit will resort to illegal alternatives to meet rising costs. More crime will produce more arrests and a diversion of some perpetrators of acquisition crime into prison where treatment can be offered part of the new Integrated Drug Treatment System. Repressive drug policies thereby generate crime to produce an opportunity for arrest. If it works all the crime generators are taken out of the drug / crime cycle through rehabilitation, and a portion of overall crime eliminated. Casual cocaine users on the other hand will be driven away from cocaine, and reduce overall prevalence in the mid term. Whatever the calculation of law enforcement agencies in meeting their objectives of eliminating cocaine from the UK, the dynamic of the illicit market has to be factored in. According to the assumptions – search for profit, willingness to break the law, - it is also predictable.

The rise in ‘wholesale’ prices in cocaine markets is going to set an incentive for organised crime groups to redouble their efforts. Where profits are rising and other forms of enterprise are as affected by global downturn as the licit economy organisations will respond that have hitherto been outside the cocaine trade in the UK. In a situation of overall contraction across the economy cocaine importation, according to SOCA, makes for an attractive business proposition. The National Criminal Intelligence Service, predecessor of SOCA, was alarmed by criminal groups committing violent crime to collect start up capital for entering the drug trade as early as 2003.

If this phenomenon is known, then why is it sensible for a government crime prevention agency broadcast the opening of a criminal opportunity? Most potential perpetrators, it may be said, already know this and SOCA would not give away information unless it had been carefully assessed. Yet information on ‘wholesale’ prices was precisely what the Matrix analysis based on interviews of 222 drug traffickers found was difficult to come by (Matrix Knowledge Group, 2007, The illicit drug trade in the UK, Home Office Online Report 20/07). The cocaine business is extremely opaque, with no overall information on the movements of goods, leaving each trader to operate through networks. Prices are determined and assessed through personal information, and the weighing of risk and profit. An earlier Home Office study characterised the drugs market as fragmented (Pearson et al, 2001, Middle Market Drug Distribution, Home Office Research Study 227)

Cocaine transactions are cash based, and take place in marginal settings, outside the protective framework of the law. They are fuelled by fear of violence from partners or police and the loss of wealth or freedom. Prices are dictated by security as much as by market demand and exponential increases after importation. The number of people involved at buyer and seller level is far smaller than at the retail level.

At street market level research can establish overall prices as informants are easy to identify and liable to give truthful answers. Surveys can establish relatively easily what drug buyers buy as work of the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit has demonstrated. It has historic data on price trends collated from questionnaires distributed at festivals and web surveys. The police, by contrast, have been relying on undercover purchases. Over the years, the respective drug price information has been variance. Notwithstanding shortcomings, the police approximations of price levels have been methodologically far more robust at the simpler retail market than elsewhere. The claims to price trends in the secretive, opaque and volatile ‘wholesale’ market requires a ‘conceptual explanation of methods. All we have at the moment is a reported fall in purity for which there could be a multitude of causes.

We have learnt from the heroin drought in Australia in 2000, celebrated by law enforcement as a seizure breakthrough, that market changes are often the result of supply shifts. Serious organised crime groups can switch their exports to more lucrative markets, wherein currency ratios play a part. In the late 1990s Burma based drug trafficking groups redirected heroin flows from Australia to China while increasing the supply of methamphetamine (Bush, William, Marcus Roberts and Mike Trace, 2005 Upheavals in the Australian drug market: heroin drought, stimulant flood, Beckley Foundation, briefing paper 4). In the UK the stipulated fall in cocaine may be a function of sterling depreciation, or a corollary of overall drop in imports. Bitten by recession, UK consumers are spending less on imported luxuries, cocaine included. Among celebrities the new austerity chic may even trigger an abstinence trend.

In the streets though a different process, of cocaine normalisation may have been at play. The prevailing culture of psychoactive experimentation has seen a rapid widening of occasional to regular cocaine consumers. With this ‘social extensification’ cocaine has been transformed from luxury to chemical fix, and quality dropped to the standards of a mass market.

Low grade cocaine, ironically, is consequence of the same repressive drug supply policy that delivered high grade cannabis. In both cases changes in the product have not responded to consumer demand, but are market adaptations to the constraints of enforcement. Young people are left to celebrate the end of exams with 'killer skunk' and insecticide courtesy of the UK Drug Strategy.

There are increasing demands for closer scrutiny of the consequences of drug policy enforcement. Instead of explaining hard data on reducing cocaine availability, SOCA produces soft targets, hard to verify, and of indirect value. According Trevor Pearce,[1] project Kitley has netted some 15 tonnes of chemicals used to bulk up cocaine and led to 72 arrests. But how this impacts on the overall availability of cocaine and raises the levels of safety for cocaine users remains mysterious. It is best read as an activity report demonstrating that the agency has been active and successful, therefore justifying ongoing support. ‘We are on the right track, let us not give up fighting now’ is the motto.

What happens when we get there is not clear. But the concern is shared by senior officers at SOCA itself, one of whom lamented that:

We may have to say at some stage that taking heavily adulterated cocaine is more physically harmful to the user than taking cocaine that’s less adulterated. That is not the case at the moment. But we’ve got to keep asking the question. I’m aware that the health equation could one day say: Stop trying to stop cocaine coming in.”

It leaves the drug policy watcher wondering what exactly the point is?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Clutching at Straws - SOCA Claims it is Winning the War on Cocaine

In a report released today the Serious Organised Crime Agency, (SOCA) claims that it has increased the wholesale price of cocaine and that street purity has fallen.

As the evidence has shown over the long term, illegal drugs have become increasingly cheap and available. However, short term reversals in these trends are often proclaimed by prohibitionist governments and the enforcement agencies charged with fighting the war on drugs, and this is a prime case in point. Taken at face value, these reversals in fortune will be used to signal imminent victory in the wider war.

For those of us who have seen entire enforcement agencies come and go, this is more of the same in the propaganda war. Cherry picking statistics is bread and butter for those who have to show success in an ocean of failure. President Obama is on the record in 2005 describing the war on drugs as an "utter failure".

The global war on drugs has gifted a trade to organised criminals, valued at £4-6 billion a year in the UK alone and £160 billion globally. One has to ask who benefits from hiking the price and lowering the purity of cocaine - even if this can be achieved or is the result of enforcement efforts? The answer is twofold:
  1. Governments and agencies who want to dupe the public into maintaining support for the futile and counterproductive war on drugs and,
  2. Organised criminals who can take advantage of rising demand and absorb the price hike by making up weights by adding adulterants at retail level, sure in the knowledge that the illegal market will be theirs to exploit for years to come.
One of the more pertinent policy outcomes that SOCA have not been trumpeting is that cocaine use has more than doubled in the last ten years (and is still rising) and part of this phenomenon has been the disastrous emergence of widespread crack cocaine use over the same period. It is likely that this explosion in demand is driving any recent decrease in cocaine purity rather than supply side enforcement impacts. Clearly there is considerably more cocaine entering the country than their was when SOCA was set up. And this has nothing to do with how effectively SOCA do their duties; the economics of a totally unregulated multi-billion pound market (in which demand is high and rising) controlled by flexible, cunning and often violent criminal profiteers make SOCAs task one that is doomed from the outset.

If SOCA are so sure that this recent evidence is supportive of their work, I'm sure that they will back Transform's call for an independent impact assessment of the current regime of prohibition and a genuine exploration of alternatives, including the legal regulation of currently prohibited drugs. David Cameron supported a call as a backbencher, for the UK to initiate just such a debate at the UN in 2002.

So, what should we believe? Decades of history, or the agency that has to show that its work isn't futile and counterproductive? You decide...

Media coverage:

See also previous Transform blog:

Playing SOCA with drugs policy (Jan 2007)

Monday, May 11, 2009

US drug debate continues apace: Four letters in the Wall Street Journal

More evidence that the US drug policy debate has moving decisively towards both mainstream and the pro-reform agenda came from the recent engagement of the Wall Street Journal, that ran pro-legalisation piece (mostly focusing on cannabis) by Yale Law professor Steven Duke, and an anti-legalisation piece by former US drug Tsar John Walters. Reading the comments sections (compare and contrast) gives an indication of where the public debate is now up to in the States, reflected in the selection of four letters published today, copied below:

Thank you for presenting the prohibitionist view offered by John P. Walters, a man of significant experience and stature ("Drugs: To Legalize or Not," Weekend Journal, April 25). If the defense of the indefensible had been presented by an individual of lesser accomplishments you could be justifiably accused of bias in favor of the opposing argument presented by Steven B. Duke. To my knowledge no other national newspaper has undertaken this third-rail issue.

Mr. Duke's reference to the undeniably successful eight-year-old Portuguese experiment would be immediately comprehensible to my 12-year-old granddaughter, though perhaps not to her five-year-old sister or to those Americans who steadfastly cling to the notion of the perfectibility of human nature.

As Mr. Walters points out, repealing prohibition didn't end crime, but it removed the glamour and money from bootlegging. The real victims of repeal were among the small criminal element of police, politicians and judges. What has reduced the drug, alcohol and tobacco-abusing segments to today's levels is not, as Mr. Walters would have us believe, an expensive war on drugs, but widespread and successful education efforts by health professionals and governments.

Twenty-first century repeal would cut the ground out from under the wealthy and corrupting Latin American drug syndicates, as well as the Taliban and other beneficiaries of our current drug policy. We could call a halt to the incarceration of minority drug users now subject to discriminatory drug prosecutions, close half our prisons, and divert precious resources now wasted on our war on drugs to constructive uses.

Jon Somer, Oldwick, N.J.


Over many decades, my drug of choice has been alcohol, unlike Mr. Walters, the former drug czar, who seems to be fatally addicted to the drug of power, an addiction that leads to the fatal delusion that we can win a century-long battle that began with the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914. My only direct contact with the drug war was a half-century ago, when I found myself for almost a year on a federal grand jury whose main function was to indict dozens of street-level marijuana dealers.

But over many decades I have watched, incredulous, as the drug war helped expand drug usage at ever cheaper prices, all the while funneling generations of blacks and other minorities into the civilized world's largest prison system. Nobel laureate Milton Friedman contributed to our understanding with several Wall Street Journal op-ed pieces, one in 1972, when we were deluged by heroin imports from Marseille, and another in 1989, when the problem was cocaine imports from Colombia. In his 1989 article, an open letter to drug czar Bill Bennett, Mr. Walters' predecessor, Friedman wrote: "The very measures you favor are a major source of the evils you deplore. Of course the problem is demand, but it is demand that must operate through repressed and illegal channels.

Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law-enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces to that they are starved for resources to fight the simpler crimes of robbery, theft and assault."

William M. Burke

San Francisco


I resent the myth fostered by the pro-legalization organizations that minimize the dangers of marijuana. Not only is it addictive, but it is also harmful with serious long-term effects. It is a gateway drug all too often as well. Mankind is cursed with many ills, but giving up on the cures by pretending there is no evil is superficial, cowardly and immoral.

Lorrin Peterson

Kerrville, Texas


Mr. Duke's column on the necessity of legalizing drugs is spot-on, outside of its glaring omission of the primary reason for legalizing drugs: Human beings have a natural right as rational animals to ingest anything they wish. All of us who do or did drugs (as I did as a youth) know that you can acquire any drug any time, usually within minutes or hours of the desire. The only thing that ever changes is price, which, like all commodities, depends upon availability and demand. Each and every American knows somebody in his or her circle f friends who sells at least small amounts of drugs, whether they know it or not.

Let's bring it above ground to the light of day and stop burying police officers and others below ground in a futile attempt at regulating human behavior. I commend the Journal for having the courage to bring this subject up in a major, public way. Now, let's start talking rationally.

David Elmore

Roswell, Ga.


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Mexico to decriminalise possession of drugs

Both Houses in Mexico's legislature have now approved a bill decriminalising possession of small amounts of all drugs for personal use. Both the Senate and Congress have supported the bill, meaning that President Calderon, just needs to rubber stamp the policy before it becomes law, expected to happen in the next few days (see Reuters report:'Mexico passes bill on small-scale drugs possession'). The legislation nominally applies to possession of under 2 grams of cannabis, 500 milligrams of cocaine half a gram), 40 milligrams of meth, and 50 milligrams of heroin (approx one dose) - although how strictly these limits will be enforced remains to be seen.

The legislation will operate in a somewhat similar fashion to the Portugese approach with arrested individuals having to agree to a drug treatment program to address admitted addiction or enter a prevention program designed for recreational users. Those who refuse to attend one of these kinds of programs would be subject to a fine. A number of countries around the world have decriminalised possession of drugs, most prominently Portugal, where, according to the recent Cato Institute report

'...drug-related pathologies—such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage—have decreased dramatically. Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens—enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization.'
(see also Drugs in Portugal: did decriminlisation work? in Time Magazine last month)

Similar policies have already been implemented or mooted in much of Latin America (most recently in Argentina), with the recent Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy calling for a:
A new paradigm to address the drug problem [that] must be less centered on repressive measures and more regardful of national societies and cultures. Effective policies must be based on scientific knowledge and not on ideological biases. This effort must involve not only governments but all sectors of society….’

President Calderon

Interestingly the bill is almost identical to one proposed by former President Vincent Fox in 2006, who was then persuaded to make a u-turn after heavy pressure from the United States. It is not expected the US will object this time around - Barack Obama visited Mexico last month and has presumably been aware of the recent developments, chosing not to comment so far (on the personal use/possession issue) but specifically praising Mexico's anti-drug efforts, and promising logistical and military support.

Obama's position, and the similar comments made by Hilary Clinton highlight the problem with the Mexico move. Whilst moves toward a less punitive system for drug users is welcomed, it will do nothing to stem the violence in Mexico that has caused 2,000 deaths this year alone, which is due entirely to the overarching legal framework of global prohibition and the country's key position as transit route for illicit drugs to the US - the world biggest illicit drug consumer.

Decriminalisation of personal use will not reduce the negative impacts of the illicit drugs trade (and some have argued it could make things worse on the illicit production/supply front). Marginalised populations in producer countries will still be threatened by military eradication and control efforts, and, along with transit countries, will still be victims of the entrenched corruption, violence, and conflict that comes with the vast illicit trade controlled by violent criminal profiteers.

A Mexican organisation, the Collective for an Integrated Drug Policy argues that, 'The law against small time trafficking (narcomenudeo) represents certain advances but also important risks for drug policy in Mexico.'

They have highlighted what they see as the risks and negative consequences that will also occur as a result of the implemenation of the law:

'1. The law only marginally considers the problem of drug consumption and limits itself to legally defining it. On the other hand, it focuses on intensifying a military and police strategy that has proven to be a failure. With this, we confirm the lack of interest by the federal government for public health and human rights.

2. The law will criminalize a vast group of people who make a living off the small time dealing of drugs, but who in reality do not consciously form part of organized crime, but rather whose principal reason for dealing is that it is way out of unemployment. Imprisoning them will not diminish the supply of drugs on the street, nor will it improve public security; yet it will justify the war on drugs, since the government will be able to boast the number of people incarcerated with this policy.

3. The law implicates a policy that induces the commission of crimes on behalf of police forces by allowing them to buy drugs in order to identify small time dealers. This is clearly an authoritarian way to deal with the problem, where the message appears to be “when it comes to drugs, everything is allowed, including human rights violations”.

4. The amounts of drugs permitted in the initiative for personal consumption are ambiguous in terms of their actual legality, being that it is not specified how a consumer can obtain them without being considered a criminal due to the mere transaction. But most importantly, these amounts are not realistic in terms of the drug market (for example, the initiative allows a consumer to have .5 grams of coke, when coke is sold on the streets by the gram), the reason for which we can anticipate a significant increase in corruption and extortion of consumers by police forces.'

Only the ending of the global prohibition and its replacement with a just and humane system of legal regulation will enable Mexico to return to relative peace and stability.