Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Transform's submission to the Drugs Strategy Consultation

The summary and conclusions are copied below, the full document (in Pdf format) is available here

Transform has a number of serious concerns about the consultation process and the contents of the consultation paper itself. These concerns are explored first with reference to the consultation document where relevant, and the Governments consultation code of practice. We then highlight and discuss key areas of policy that are absent from the consultation. 

On the specific questions in the consultation document not covered in this response Transform wishes to endorse the detailed submissions made by Release ( ) and UKHRA / NNEF. ( ) 


The consultation does not adhere to the first three criterion of the Government’s consultation code of practice regarding when to consult, duration of the consultation, or clarity and scope of impact.
There is no Impact Assessment for proposed policy changes, or research data / analysis presented in support of any proposals.
Key areas of the public policy debate are entirely absent from the consultation, specifically:
  • Harm reduction – a key pillar of UK drug policy receives no mention 
  • Sentencing / decriminalisation – the growing body of evidence, high level backing and active public debate are ignored
  •  Supply side enforcement – its efficacy is unquestioned (despite the absence of evidence) and its impacts unexplored
  • The classification system / ACMD – none of the high profile public debates and controversies on this important issue are addressed
  • International drug policy – there is no mention of or engagement with the international dimension of UK drug policy
  • Evaluative framework – there is no engagement with how policy should be evaluated – regards targets, KPIs and or how they should be prioritised
  • Tobacco – there are many mentions of alcohol, but none of the drug associated with the greatest number of addictions and chronic deaths in the UK
Discussion / Conclusions 

There are some positive things in this consultation. We are pleased to see the call for ‘a more holistic approach with drugs issues being assessed and tackled alongside other issues such as alcohol abuse, child protection, mental health, employment and housing’.

Transform have long argued that levels of problematic drug use primarily reflect a complex interplay social, economic and cultural variables. In addition to those above we would certainly include social deprivation, inequality and broader measures of personal and social wellbeing. The corollary of this, of course, is that the impact of drug policy as traditionally conceived (prevention, treatment, and enforcement) should not be overestimated and may be marginal, in many cases irrelevant, relative to the underlying social determinants of drug using behaviours.

This analysis – that problematic use is essentially a barometer of a social wellbeing (or lack of) - has obvious implications for longer term prevention and harm reduction strategies. It suggests that success is likely to flow more from investment in social capital and addressing multiple deprivation and inequality issues, particularly as they affect young people, rather than from pouring ever more money into more conventional interventions that are poorly supported by evidence. 

Whilst conventional drug policy may only be able to achieve, at best, fairly marginal impacts on prevalence of problematic use, the overarching prohibitionist legal framework can, however, have a dramatic impact on levels of harm associated with drug use. This can be both by increasing health risks associated with use, and through the wider social harms created or exacerbated by the illegal drug market. 

This goes to the heart of the drug policy and law reform position that Transform represents; a pragmatic position that accepts both the reality of demand for drugs as it currently exists, and that this demand will be met by illegal supply routes if no legally regulated supply option exists. Drug markets can be controlled and regulated by governments or by gangsters; there is no third option that involves a drug free society. 

We argue that legally regulating drug production, supply and use (as detailed in ‘After the War on Drugs; Blueprint for Regulation’) would deliver better outcomes than the anarchic criminal free for all and underground drug culture we currently have. The pragmatic mindset also requires that whilst we acknowledge  most people do not use illegal drugs, we must also acknowledge that most of those who do, do so relatively responsibly. Their use is not associated with significant personal or social harms, and as such should not be deemed problematic. Of people (globally) who report using illegal drugs in the last year The UNODC only describes 5% as problematic users. It is important to be mindful of the 95% of non-problematic users who do not need treatment – let alone criminal sanction.

Whilst there is a welcome and growing acknowledgement that treatment, prevention and education should be are tailored to individual and local needs - prohibition remains a blunt, inflexible and indiscriminate legislative tool, an absolutist position that criminalises all users regardless of their impact on themselves or those around them, similarly forcing all supply in the hands of criminal profiteers.

The reform position has its roots in the critique of the failings of this approach – both on its own terms, and regards the secondary unintended harms of the illegal trade it fuels. As has been alluded to in this response, the prohibitionist paradigm cannot stand scrutiny, which is at least part of the reason why scrutiny has been so studiously avoided for so long. Indeed the ‘war on drugs’ has required a monumental propaganda effort to sustain it – just as many other wars have.

We only need cast our minds back to the farcical drug strategy consultation of 2007. It was supported by a consultation document described by the ACMD thus:
"it is unfortunate that the consultation paper’s ‘key facts and evidence’ section appears to focus on trying to convince the reader of success and progress; rather than providing an objective review and presentation of the current evidence. The ACMD found the consultation paper self-congratulatory and generally disappointing.’

‘It is of concern that the evidence presented, and the interpretation given, are not based on rigorous scrutiny.'
Of the same document the Government’s own Statistics Commission similarly accused the Home Office of spinning the data to make it look more favourable and failing to ‘provide a balanced presentation of the relevant statistical and other evidence’. 
Meanwhile a rigorous and critical ‘value for money’ study (referred to on page 10) that informed the Home Office’s internal review was not made publicly available – only emerging this year following an absurdly protracted 3-year FOI battle with Transform. 

Many the problems with that ill fated consultation (regards process, content and transparency) have unfortunately now been repeated, although this time around we do not even have crudely spun evidence to criticise – there is simply none.
This is why the core of our call in this response is to return to the evidence; to have, if you will forgive the oft-misused political clichés, a ‘mature and rational debate’ about ‘what works’.

But this time with all options on the table.
This requires open, honest and ongoing evaluation, and as a starting point; independently overseen Impact Assessments of all policies and legislation, new and old (including the MDA 1971). 

In terms of the general mindset, this will entail a move from misplaced moralising and outdated (but entrenched) drug war ideologies to pragmatic public health and social policy norms. If the Government follow the evidence it can only lead to better policies and the better outcomes we all seek. We are confident that if this happens it will only lead in one direction – and it will not be towards criminalisation and prohibition. 

Sadly this consultation falls short on almost every front – it is tokenistic, politicised, and entirely inadequate for the reasons outlined. It is more than a missed opportunity; it is entirely unacceptable as a basis for developing a new drug strategy. We therefore recommend that it be reviewed by the Cabinet Office (and will be requesting this from the Cabinet Minister) with a view to being re-launched. The new consultation process should address the identified shortcomings by adhering to the Government code of practice, including evidential support and Impact Assessments for all proposals, and covering all aspects of UK drug policy of concern to stakeholders.

1 comment:

daniel carter said...

Great work - Thank you