Monday, May 21, 2007

Drugs minister gives a masterclass in drug policy spin and evasion

Vernon Coaker discusses the drugs strategy in this week's Drink and Drug News, providing a masterclass in drug policy spin. We have almost 1000 words, completely devoid of any meaningful content, but resplendent with evasion, waffle, process success and statistical slight of hand, dressing up failure as success. Here is the article with added commentary from Transform (in Bold).

We invite Home Office minister Vernon Coaker to give us insight to his approach to revising the Drugs Strategy. He explains his direction of travel.

This week I am looking forward to national tackling drugs day, a chance to celebrate the wonderful work that often goes on, often unsung, around the country. On Wednesday, groups in places as diverse as Camden, Durham, Blackburn, Milton Keynes and Ceredigion will highlight the dangers posed by drugs and the work that goes on to tackle this menace.

Drugs as a 'menace'. All drugs? This from 'I have a drink now and again ' Coaker.

A drug treatment centre will be officially opened in Barking and Dagenham, there will be information stalls across the country and Gateshead will host a concert with a song, called ‘Kick It’, written and performed by a former drug user.

Whilst it is absolutely correct to celebrate the excellent work done by many drug service providers, what we have here is essentially an exercise in diversion. On numerous occasions we have seen politicians asked searching questions about drug policy only to completely ignore them and respond with a list of local initiatives like anti-drug songs at events in Gateshead.

It's content free waffle, classic ministerial bluster that entirely ignores the requirement for them to engage in meaningful debate around the wider systemic failures where they have occured during the last 10 years of the drug strategy. The strategy's many critiques - notably from the Police Foundation (2001), the Home Affairs Select Committee (2002), The Number 10 Strategy Unit (2003), Transform (2004), the Science and Technology Select Committee (2006), the RSA (2007) or the UKDPC (2007) remain resolutely un-mentioned here. Instead we have two more paragraphs of this guff:

On Wednesday drug action team partnerships will be organising events to support the day, from police crackdowns, information stalls in supermarkets, sports activities for young people to balloon releases to mark the numbers of people in treatment, and football and rugby matches featuring people involved in the effort to tackle drug misuse.

This from the Government that allows alcohol brands to aggressively market alcohol to children and young people through football, rugby and other sports sponsorship, despite the emergent alcohol related public health and social disorder crises that eclipse anything related to illegal drugs. Drug menace indeed.

In all, six ministers will be out and about, demonstrating just how much of a priority this government places on tackling drugs and reducing the harms they cause. I will be leading the ministerial activity by opening a new treatment centre in Barking and Dagenham. Alongside other ministers, I will be playing a football match against Lambeth North Positive Futures scheme and the Hull-based charity, Dads Against Drugs to launch the Tackling Drugs Changing Lives Awards 2007.

This smacks of doing keepy-uppey whilst Rome burns. Millions are suffering as a result of failing policy and the actively counterproductive effects of an enforcement led response to a public health problem. And our drugs minister is off to playing football to celebrate 'success'.

This isn’t just talk (no its waffle): since 1998, when we launched our ten-year Drug Strategy, this government has made tackling drugs a top priority. We have backed our strategy with unparalleled investment of over £9 billion in enforcement, education, early intervention, and treatment.

So, you've thrown loads of money at the problem. Good, but has it been effective? Unsurprisingly Coaker claims that:

We have spent this money well: overall drug misuse has fallen by 16 per cent since 1998 while the misuse of Class A drugs has stabilised.

As explored in another recent blog entry, this sort of claim is playing very fast and loose with the available statistics, which can easily be cherry picked and massaged to show success, even when the reality is somewhat different: Total Class A drug use appears stable because the fashions for ecstasy and LSD have moved on. But these, according to most analyses, are two of the least harmful Class A drugs - probably mis-classified by a couple of alphabetic increments. The two drugs the Government has repeatedly said it is most concerned about are heroin and cocaine, because they are responsible for the lion’s share of secondary crime harms – (that £16 billion a year in crime costs the Home Office keep mentioning). This is where the real enforcement push has gone, but these are also the two drugs where policy has fared the worst: having risen steadily and dramatically in the case of cocaine, or in the case of heroin, risen up until 2001/2 and then stabilised. There is no good way to spin this – a dramatic rise or stabilisation at a perilous and unprecedented high is NOT a policy success, especially when the key strategc goal of ten years ago – which literally billions of pounds has been thrown at - was a significant reduction. All the other ‘successes’, the marginal falls in ecstasy, amphetamine, LSD, cannabis use and so on, pale into insignificance next to this monumental disaster where it really matters.

I am particularly heartened that drug misuse among young people has fallen by over a fifth in the last ten years.

Again, as discussed elsewhere in the blog we can use the same tables to show that, for example, the proportion of 11 year olds reporting ever using drugs has risen by 1400% since the start of the drug strategy. Hardly cause for popping the champagne.

More and more people are entering and staying in drug treatment. Nearly four-fifths of the 181,000 people who underwent drug treatment programmes in the last financial year completed their programmes.

Process indicators again. Meaningful outcomes, such as the shockingly high reoffending rates, are completely ignored (because they are mostly very bad indeed). Throwing money at treatment services can easily give you good throughput numbers, but says nothing about outcomes. Coaker should be given an award from the cherry pickers guild.

Despite these successes, I am keenly aware the debate over drugs remains highly charged and the challenge for government is to navigate a way through competing demands. I fully understand the strong emotions involved; but too often the debate is framed in extreme terms – some people argue for legalisation while others argue for tough enforcement – leaving little space for a rational debate in the centre ground. For example, in recent months we have heard from people who think drug legalisation would be the answer to solving the social problems associated with drug misuse. On the other hand, I do not have to go far to hear from people who call loudly for even tougher enforcement against drug dealers and drug users.

Since Transform is the only organisation in the UK calling for legalisation and regulation I have to assume Coaker is, to some extent at least, talking about us. He mentions legalisation three times in this short piece, which I have to take as a promising sign that they are worried – they see the rational arguments for pragmatic moves towards regulated markets as a threat to the crumbling prohibitionist status quo. His response: to portray the position as an extremist one by equating it with the get tough enforcers, and then failing to engage with the critique of prohibition's failure or the detailed and nuanced debate about alternative policy, as espoused in Transform's (amongst others’) analysis.

Coaker's comments closely echo those made by Roger Howard a few weeks ago on 5Live, launching the new UKDPC:

“There are some very simplistic solutions put around. One argument is: let's legalise everything. Well we've only got to look at alcohol and tobacco, and the huge problems that are there. There is no simple solution there. The other school says bang 'em all up, put 'em away and throw away the key. That doesn't work either. We need to have a mature debate.”

These comments represent defensive positions that are based on undermining others who think differently. Ironically they actually entrench the perception that there is a polarised debate in the minds of the public, even though this reflects media rather than intellectual debate in this area . This is particularly galling for Transform given that this apparently polarised scenario is entirely different from that portrayed in our published materials, clearly unread by either Coaker or Howard. Moreover, Transform has recently been one of the founder members of the Drugs and Health Alliance – that, as part of its attempt to engage a 'mature debate' and attempt to navigate the 'centre ground' avoids the prohibition/regulation debate altogether. Furthermore, 'legalisation' is neither an ideological position nor an end in itself. It is a process of moving from the straight jacket of prohibition to flexible and responsive systems of public health-led regulation of different drug markets based on evidence of effectiveness. And thence to genuine attempts to address the underlying problems that lead to drug misuse.

Others will refer to drug policies abroad, whether in the Netherlands, Sweden or the United States, and say we should adopt the extreme policies of zero-tolerance or legalisation. Each country has to tailor the drug strategy that is appropriate to its own culture, history and traditions.

And out of the three countries mentioned the UK basis it policy on that of the one that is the most spectacular disaster: the US. And, not forgetting the Government’s desire to get tough on ‘causes’ of problems – it was the UK and the US who propped up the bottom of the league table of twenty one industrialised nations for child wellbeing in a recent UNICEF report.

But the truth is that any drug strategy cannot succeed without a comprehensive approach that focuses on enforcement, education, early intervention and treatment. Tough enforcement stops criminals and takes harmful drugs out of circulation;

No it doesn't – drugs are demonstrably cheaper and more available than ever before, not that Coaker would mention this widely acknowledged fact. Added to which, all the evidence-based analysis shows that it is the very enforcement of supply side prohibition that creates the gargantuan criminal drugs market and the wealthy gangsters who run it (See the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit drugs report 2003).

education empowers young people with knowledge of the harms caused by drugs; early intervention with vulnerable groups in order to prevent them from becoming drawn into drug misuse and treatment improves individual lives, and cuts crime and anti-social behaviour.

One sentence I wouldn't disagree with. Shame though that two thirds of the drugs budget goes into futile and counterproductive enforcement and interdiction efforts. The very initiative that serves to marginalize further the vulnerable groups that Coaker claims to be so keen on helping. Which leads nicely into the most shameless bit of spin in the entire piece:

Our latest figures show that more than 15,300kg of cocaine and 2,200kg of heroin were taken out of the supply chain in 2005/06. Almost 200 illegal criminal gangs were disrupted and £30 million of drug related assets were seized.

Coaker fails to mention here, of course, that the illegal drugs trade is created in the first instance by the UK’s commitment to global prohibition in the first instance. It is the futile attempt to eradicate production and supply in the face of rampant demand that has gifted one of the largest commodities trades on earth to organized criminals (again, see Tony Blair's Strategy Unit drugs report 2003).

That matters. I know, when I meet people in my constituency and elsewhere, that people want tough action on dealers, the people who drag down their communities.

Whilst I'm quite sure that Coaker's consituents care about dealing in their communities he is being dishonest and willfully misleading when he suggests the impressive sounding seizures and the number of criminal gangs disrupted will make the slightest bit of difference. Seizures have been consistently shown to be entirely irrelevant to overall supply, (which in an unregulated and highly profitable market, will always keep pace with demand, as has been explored numerous times on this blog). Drugs, as already discussed, are acknowledged - even by the Home Office - to be cheaper and more available than ever before, and suggesting supply side success in this context is, to my mind, the most shameless and deceitful of all the Home Office drugs spin. Supply controls have spectacularly failed by any reasonable measure and dressing this shocking and expensive failure up as success does the debate about 'what works' no favours at all.

However, as a former teacher I know that drug education has a significant role to play. We no longer wag the finger at young people and tell them simply not to do drugs. Instead, through the multimedia FRANK campaign, we empower young people by warning them of the harms caused by drugs and the risks involved with drug misuse, targeting vulnerable young people who are most at risk and providing specialist interventions for young people with developing drug problems. This approach has paid dividends with drug misuse falling among young people. After a decade of success, we are looking to renew our Drug Strategy and will shortly consult on the way forward for coming years.

If they already think, before any real review or consultation process, that the last strategy was 'a decade of success', what hope is there for any fresh ideas or real change?

I want to hear fresh ideas on how we can enhance the drug strategy, but I am clear that I want to focus on what works: enforcement, education, early intervention and treatment. In talking to drug treatment professionals it is evident to me that drug classification is important in setting out the legal framework for drug control. It has stood the test of time

Given the battering the classification system has taken by the Police Foundation, the Home Affairs Select Committee, Drugscope and Turning Point, the RSA report, Coaker’s own senior advisors published in the Lancet, and most devastatingly by the Science and Technology Committee last year – this comment about 'standing the test of time' is nothing short of risible. It also comes after John Reid rejected a review of the system, that had been recommended by everyone from the previous Home Secretary, the ACMD, various select committees, NGOs, indpendent policy commissions – in fact everyone who has ever been asked who is not Vernon Coaker or John Reid.

and I want to focus on the most important aspects of tackling drug misuse: how we can enforce the law against dealers and supplies; how we can empower our young people with knowledge of the harms illegal drugs cause; and how we can provide treatment most effectively so that even more drug misusers are treated for the benefit of them and their communities.

This strategy has worked and I want to enhance it. I remain fully committed to our strategy of enforcement, education, early intervention and treatment, focusing at all stages on harm reduction. Working together, we can reduce even further the harm caused by illegal drugs.

Rounded off with some tried and tested platitudes and repetition of existing policies.

I have to say this does not inspire confidence that the consultation process for the new strategy will be a meaningful one, or that anyone who suggests any change in the preordained 'direction of travel' will be listened to. If this is the level of engagement and honesty we can look forward to, we should all be extremely worried.

thanks to Drink and Drug news

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