Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Where is the drug policy reform debate up to today?

Below is an edited section from the introduction to the upcoming Transform publication 'After the War on Drug's - tools for the debate' A guide to making the case for drug policy reform. The Transform blog has secured exclusive serialisation rights for an undisclosed 5-figure sum. The guide will be available in print (and as a free pdf download) in July, but the blog will be serialising key sections over the coming weeks.....

Cover Design (an early draft...)

Where are we up to today?

The cause of drug law reform has been a prolonged struggle that began as soon as drug prohibition in its modern form came into being. Although prohibitions of various drugs stretch back into the 18th century (see Transform’s history of prohibition time line), the modern drug law reform movement began in earnest with the social movements of the 1960s. It was during this decade that the 1961 UN Convention on Drugs enshrined prohibition as a truly global policy, and recreational drug use in the West simultaneously began its dramatic rise toward current levels.

The drugs debate has moved on considerably since that time, with the political, social and cultural landscape shifting and evolving dramatically, both in the UK and in the wider world. All the problems associated with drug prohibition and illegal markets have continued to worsen over the past four decades: the prevalence of illegal drug use has risen steadily despite the many billions spent on enforcing a policy intended to eradicate it. As prohibition’s policy outcomes have deteriorated, the volume of calls for a rethink and serious consideration of alternative policy options has grown. This growth accelerated particularly rapidly during the 1990s as recreational use of illegal drugs became a truly mainstream youth phenomenon, and problematic use (of heroin in particular) ballooned to epidemic proportions. Problematic drug use now causes a level of secondary crime-related harms to wider society that is unprecedented in modern history, and was entirely unanticipated when drugs were prohibited.

It is now clear that our drug policy cannot continue down the same failed path forever. Prohibition’s failure is now widely understood and acknowledged among key stakeholders in the debate. Although politicians have thus far been the primary beneficiaries of the policy (the other beneficiaries being the mafia), the political benefits of pursuing prohibition are now waning and the political costs of its continuation are becoming unsustainable. The intellectual and political consensus supporting a ‘War on Drugs’ is crumbling rapidly, and calls for ‘more of the same’, or ever tougher enforcement responses, no longer go unchallenged. Since the 1990s, a vigorous network of domestic and international NGOs have been making the case for substantive pragmatic reform to drug policy and law.

However, although the failure of the current policy is now widely accepted, even within government, there is less consensus on 'so, where now?'. Those in a state of denial over the failure of the drug war typically argue that policy can be tweaked within the prohibitionist framework to make it more effective. This usually means directing more resources into treatment and harm reduction, and perhaps being more tolerant of low level drug users. There is considerable room for manoeuvre within UK and international law for policies that could improve the current situation and indeed many such changes are already underway. In recent years we have seen cannabis reclassification, the expansion of heroin and methadone prescribing, harm reduction programs such as the needle exchanges and ‘injecting kits’, and increased investment in drug treatment.

Internationally, reforms have gone much further. A number of countries have progressed to de facto decriminalision of personal possession of all drugs, including Russia, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Holland. Harm reduction measures have been widely adopted, including maintenance prescribing of heroin (and increasingly of stimulants), supervised drug consumption rooms, and even tolerance of low level ‘grey market’ sales of some drugs, such as the cannabis ‘coffee shop’ system in Holland.

The problem is that, for the most part, these reforms are merely reducing harms created by illegal markets and harshly enforced prohibition in the first place. They never address its fundamental problems: the creation of crime and illegal markets and the injustice of criminalising drug users. Tinkering with domestic policy under strict international prohibition is not a long term solution. It is an attempt to minimise harms within a legal framework that maximises them, and thus its successes will always be marginal ones.

By contrast, the truth that underlies the drug reform movement - that a punitive enforcement approach is actively counter-productive – is far harder to address directly. This prevents it being followed to its obvious logical conclusion: decriminalising consenting adult drug use and moving towards the legal regulation and control of some or all drug production and supply.

Yet this last taboo is now also crumbling, as Transform’s collection of quotes from supporters of reform so resoundingly demonstrates. The Transform quote archive also reveals that there have been strong arguments in favour of drug law reform in media as diverse as the Mirror, the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Times, the Economist, The New Statesman and many others besides. You really do not have to wait for the reform position to gain mainstream traction – it already has it.

Whilst it remains important to support and encourage the process of incremental change away from harshly enforced prohibition towards a new evidence-based public health approach, there are already many groups dedicated to doing this and much change is already happening in this direction. The specific task of Transform and the movement for longer term reform is to make the case and campaign for a repeal of the absolute drug prohibition currently enshrined in domestic and international law. It is only this fundamental step that will make it possible to end the criminal free-for-all of the illegal drugs market by replacing it with appropriately regulated drug production and supply. That is what will lead to a real transformation of society, both for those who use drugs and those who don’t; and that is what the 'Tools for Debate' guide is all about.



Pete Guither said...

Looking forward with great anticipation to the rest of it.

Just thought I'd point out an extremely minor typo, but since it's in the first sentence, it's a bit jarring. (the word "it" should, I believe be "its")

Steve Rolles said...

gothcha - thanks

MttJocy said...

I like the introduction, looking forward to reading the rest, good work guys been looking forward to this for some time since I first saw mention that it was being worked on. I imagine this has taken an immense amount of work to put together.