Thursday, January 10, 2008

Challenging prohibitionist myths and misinformation

After a short break The blog returns to the serialisation of Transform's latest publication :After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate. (see below for, previous sections)

Once some common ground has been established on the aims and principles underlying drug policy, the next logical step is to critique prohibition based on these agreed aims and principles. Generally speaking, this is not especially difficult, as prohibition has failed on almost every indicator imaginable. The key here, given that you are being listened to in the first place, is simply to make sure you have the basic facts and analysis at your finger tips.

Bear in mind, however, that no policy which has been such a spectacular and consistent failure could have been sustained for so long without a monumental propaganda effort to prop it up. As you critique prohibition you will need to be aware of the forest of misinformation , myth, and statistical chicanery that defends it, so that you can cut through it when necessary.

There are numerous myths perpetuated by the defenders of current drug policy, most of them aimed at supporting the case that prohibition is effective. Quite simply, it isn’t, as even a cursory examination of the facts reveals.

Prohibition was intended to eliminate drugs from the world and has achieved the exact opposite. On a consistent basis, over more than two generations, drug production has risen, drug consumption has risen, drug availability has risen (whilst prices have fallen), and drug related health problems have risen. Crucially, in addition, prohibition has directly created a raft of new problems associated with criminal markets locally and narco-states globally. Once an illegal market has become established, prohibition has not worked anywhere, ever. Moreover it has been universally and quite spectacularly counterproductive on all meaningful indicators.

The myth of prohibition’s effectiveness is constructed from a series of assertions that can very easily be demolished:

1. Prohibition reduces availability

This is perhaps the most easily-refuted claim made for prohibition – so much so that you rarely hear it anymore. Nevertheless, the goal of reducing the availability of drugs remains a key pillar of the UK national drug strategy, and indeed of the entire UN international drug control apparatus.

Reducing availability remains the sole aim of supply-side enforcement at the international, domestic and local levels, absorbing billions of government spending each year. The simplistic rationale for this strategy is that if drug supply can be stopped then no one will take drugs and the drug problem will disappear. However, drug markets are demand-driven, and supplying them is a staggeringly lucrative business. Consistently, over several generations, and in countries across the world, there has been a clear trend of drug supply and use steadily increasing. Drugs are cheaper and more available today than at any time previously, something that even official analysis from the Home Office, the ACMD, and even Tony Blair’s own confidential report produced for him by his Number 10 Strategy Unit12 does not dispute. Never let anyone claim that supply side enforcement is effective without a very robust challenge – the evidence against this assertion is clear, overwhelming and acknowledged by all credible sources, official and independent.

2. Prohibition reduces use / is an effective deterrent

This myth is entwined within the previous one, that prohibition reduces drug availability; but it also depends on the concept of using enforcement to ‘send out the right message’ on drugs, namely that they are harmful to health and you shouldn’t take them. The concept of criminal law as a deterrent to drug use is absolutely central to the entire prohibitionist paradigm, and yet the assumption has little or no evidential foundation.

This is a point that you can raise with great confidence whenever the deterrent issue arises:

  • Drug use has risen faster under prohibition than at any time in human history.
  • International comparisons show no correlation between the harshness of enforcement and prevalence of use. The UK, for example, has one of the harshest regimes and the highest level of drug use in Europe.
  • Different states within the US and Australia have very different enforcement regimes for cannabis possession – from very punitive to de facto decriminalisation. Comparing the different states shows there is no correlation between enforcement and prevalence.
  • In the UK it is mostly Class A drugs, with the harshest penalties, which have seen the most dramatic rises in use. Heroin use in the UK has risen by at least 1000% since 1971, cocaine use has doubled in the last ten years. Similarly ecstasy use went from zero to several million pills a week being consumed in a matter of years in the late 1980s.
  • The Home Office has never undertaken any research to establish the extent of enforcement related deterrence, despite it being at the heart of the Misuse of Drugs Act and all subsequent policy thinking. The research that does exist suggests enforcement related deterrence is, at best, a marginal factor in influencing decisions to take drugs.
  • In his oral evidence to the recent Science and Technology committee, Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the ACMD Technical Committee stated: “I think the evidence base for classification producing a deterrent is not strong”.
  • The Commons Science and Technology Committee reported that: “We have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect, despite the fact that it appears to underpin the Government’s policy on classification."

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6
part 7

Print copies are also available, please contact Transform


Anonymous said...

The BBC News website is currently running a Have Your Say debate on the blight of cocaine production in Columbia.

Have Your Say is usually awash with ignorant views of authoritarian moral crusaders, and while there are still plenty of them to be found here, there is a surprisingly large number of contributors who are for legalisation. Public opinion does seem to be turning on the whole drug policy debate.

Anonymous said...

proper link to Have Your Say debate