Thursday, February 28, 2008

Home Office spin guide for the new drug strategy. Part 1

When an arena of social policy is as politicised, emotive, and contentious as drugs, it’s hardly surprising that the Government message is subject to very intense media management. The need for such efforts is dramatically amplified when policy outcomes are as shockingly bad as they are with drugs policy, requiring a Herculean propaganda effort to present them in anything even approaching a positive light, and especially tricky when this propaganda is now subject to intense parliamentary, NGO, and media scrutiny.

So when the new drug strategy was launched with a medium sized fanfare yesterday it was no surprise that a pretty comprehensive briefing was also circulated to relevant civil servants on how to answer likely questions from the media. It seems reasonable to try and make sure that everyone is on message, singing from the same hymn sheet and so on. A bit New-Labour-ishly controlling perhaps, but very much par for the course for a big departmental announcement about a complex policy issue. However, these briefings rarely emerge from their departmental bunkers, and for good reason. After all, you wouldn’t want the media to know all the answers in advance. That could be a bit embarrassing, and also run the risk of them coming up with some really tricky questions.

So all the more surprising that the ‘restricted’ media briefing on the drug strategy was also circulated outside of the Home Office to various people and groups that, whilst centrally funded, most certainly are not Home Office types who will obediently trot out the party line as determined by slightly creepy 68 page Q&A briefings. There is no guarantee that the Government strategy diaspora will all take kindly to being told what to say, and they are not bound by the Masonic-like codes of silence that seem to grip departmental civil servants. With such documents presumably being bounced around 1000’s of drugs workers and bureaucrats, as well as a zillion or so Whitehall-bots, the likelihood of an anonymous, presumably peeved individual forwarding a copy to my inbox starts to increase rapidly. (Remember that a lot of people in the drugs field are just as angry and alarmed at the new drug strategy - and last year’s disgraceful consultation and review process as Transform). So you will be unsurprised to learn this is exactly what had happened before the sun had set on launch day.

Here it is in front of me. I have to assume that the prime reason that a copy found its way to me was the rather bizarre inclusion of a guide to tricky questions on the debate around ‘prohibition vs legalisation and regulation’. It reads like a ‘how to deal with Transform’ guide and the wording suggests this is basically what it is. I should be clear: there’s no state secrets here, no WMD’s, dodgy dossiers or anything really juicy (and it's probably worth pointing out that the US DEA have something very similar, but as an entire public website and publication , which I should also note is dutifully shredded by my US reform colleagues here)

There’s actually little in this section we haven’t heard before in Home Office submissions to Select committees, ministerial correspondence with Transform, or Government responses to No.10 petitions; in fact it’s testimony to the tight ship they maintain that a lot of the wording is actually identical to what we’ve heard before. But it’s none the less fascinating to see the whole intellectually threadbare charade exposed all in one place, and it’s nothing if not reassuring in a sort of ‘is this it?’ sort of way. Pathetically enough this appears to really be all they have. I suppose we should also be flattered that the reform arguments have become mainstream and eloquent enough, and gained enough momentum, to warrant their own rather defensive five pages. And other than being quite amusing in a faintly tragic fashion, it will also allow us, and you, to know in advance exactly what to expect from the Home Office or relevant minister for any given question. Its almost a shame that the media have shown next to no interest on the new drug strategy beyond the silly bit of guff about benefits (just how much did the Home Office pay to organize that earthquake?)

Still, we will probably have blog-fun with the rest of the briefing over the coming days if I have time. But here below is the prohibition debate section, unedited. But as is our privilege because its our blog, I have added commentary and references (in blue italics) which in true Home Office style I mostly cut and pasted from various other bits of 'on message' Transform text. So make sure you get it right - or else.


Q: What’s the point on maintaining the pretence that prohibition works?

Drugs are controlled for good reason – they are harmful to health. Their control is a necessary and legitimate means of protecting individuals and the public from the harms caused by their misuse.

But they are NOT CONTROLLED. This is one of the strange Orwellian twists of logic we hear so often from the Home Office. Control of the £300 billion a year trade in dangerous drugs was abdicated to violent gangsters and unregulated criminal dealers when we bought into global prohibition back in 1961. (see below). The fact drugs are harmful is the reason why they need to be properly controlled and regulated within the law rather than left in the hands of an anarchic criminal free for all. Prohibition demonstrably maximises the harms associated with drug use as well as creating the disastrous additional problems associated with illegal markets. There are of course a number of legal drugs that are also 'harmful to health', highlighting the contradiction and hypocrisy that exists within it's own policy on 'harmful drugs'.

Whilst prohibition has not eradicated availability, it has been a crucial element in restricting availability and keeping the level of drug use under control. UK drugs laws cannot be expected to eliminate drug misuse, there is no doubt that they do help to limit use and deter experimentation.

Not only has prohibition failed to eradicate availability, drugs have become progressively cheaper and more available under prohibition. There is no evidence that punitive drug laws are an effective deterrent to use and plenty of evidence to show that they are a marginal or negligible factor in drug taking decisions which are largely determined by cultural and socio- economic variables. Drug use has risen consistently during prohibition, faster than any time in history. making the case for prohibition keeping drug use down it a tricky one.

With most drugs, there is a direct relationship between the amount of use and the level of harm. As use increases, so does harm. If psychoactive drugs were to become legally available they would become easier to access and levels of use, and the resultant harms and cost to individuals and society, would expand significantly. There is overwhelming evidence that the widespread use of drugs results in enormous social harms and economic costs associated with that: the many thousands of drug-related deaths; the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B and C through injecting drug use; and the mental health disorders associated with the use of drugs.

For a more detailed discussion on the impact of drug law reform on prevalence see chapter 5 of 'After the War on Drugs Tools for the Debate'. Regarding the harms associated with injecting, significantly there is no HIV transmission or AIDS caused by any form of legal drug use. The use of prescribed heroin with clean needles is not associated with any HIV transmission, so let us be completely clear on this: drug related HIV transmission amongst injecting drug users is very specifically a result of prohibition and the use of dirty drugs with dirty needles in unsafe environments. The Home Office is here defending the policy that has caused the widespread misery and death it is simultaneously condemning, whilst criticizing those who propose proven approaches that entirely eliminate the problem (this thoroughly unpleasant argument was similarly pushed by Joseph Califano in the Financial Times and the BMJ recently - and duly shot down, by me as it happens).

The most ridiculous part of all this is the fact that the Home Office know all this full well - to the extent that they are doing a Swiss clinic-style prescription heroin pilot in London, and are planning to roll the program out. This is actually mentioned in the new strategy. Bizarre. What do they think 'regulated supply of legal drugs' means?

Q: What about the legalisation and regulation of drugs?

The Government has been very clear that the new Drug Strategy would operate within the existing legal framework and the international conventions which underpin it. We have been unequivocal in our stance of having no intention of either decriminalising or legalising currently controlled drugs for recreational purposes.

In response to the Home Affairs Committee report on The Government's Drugs Policy: Is It Working? in 2002, we stated that "We do not accept that legalisation and regulation is now, or will be in the future, an acceptable response to the presence of drugs". The Prime Minister reinforced this view when, on the 24 September 2007 to the Labour Party conference, he stated “that drugs are never going to be decriminalised”.

A total non-answer. For some commentary on the Brown speech quoted above see here.

Q: Drug misuse has risen exponentially since 1971, the year of the Misuse of Drugs Act doesn’t this mean that our drug laws and policies have been a complete failure?

Crikey, these are good questions, its almost uncanny.

Overall, the trend in drug use has been upward since the 1970’s, but has more recently stabilised and for some drugs has been falling, particularly cannabis. To suggest that the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act or more recent drugs policy has been a failure is unreasonable, in part because it is not possible to ascertain what the situation would otherwise have been should the Government of the day or successive governments taken an alternative approach.

Drug use has most likely stabilised (at an unprecedented and historic high point) because demand is now saturated, not because of some enforcement or policy triumph. Anyone who wants to use drugs does, and levels of use of different drugs rise and fall marginally as fashions s and socio-economic variables shift. It is possible to compare drug use between countries, and even within countries, that have very different levels of enforcement and punitive response and demonstrate there is no link between levels of enforcement and levels of use. (For a useful example see ref 35 here)

Data from both the British Crime Survey and the Schools Survey show that drug use is falling, while Class A drug use is stable.

This is just not true. See here for systematic debunk

Q: Isn’t it about time that we reviewed the entire Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, not just the classification system?

At its irreducible core, the 1971 Act is the means by which we transpose into domestic law our international obligations as a signatory of the 3 United Nations conventions on drugs. The principle purpose of the 1971 Act is to set out the offences of possession, supply, production and trafficking for illegal drugs.

Nothing to do with the question. And what is the 'irreducible core'?

As we have absolutely no intention of changing our position in respect of these offences, a review of the 1971 Act would be redundant. The 1971 Act continues to provide a coherent legal framework.

Again, a total non-answer: we wont review it because we don't plan to review it. Laughable.

Q: The Government should acknowledge that prohibition has not worked. Isn’t the only sensible alternative is a regulated market?

Legalisation and regulation of drugs will never be an appropriate response. Drugs are controlled for good reason – they are harmful to health. Their control is a necessary and legitimate means of protecting individuals and the public from the harms caused by their misuse.

See above

Whilst prohibition has not eradicated availability, it has been a crucial element in restricting availability and keeping the level of drug use under control. UK drugs laws cannot be expected to eliminate drug misuse, there is no doubt that they do help to limit use and deter experimentation.

See above

With most drugs, there is a direct relationship between the amount of use and the level of harm. As use increases, so does harm. If psychoactive drugs were to become legally available they would become easier to access and levels of use, and the resultant harms and cost to individuals and society, would expand significantly. There is overwhelming evidence that the widespread use of drugs results in enormous social harms and economic costs associated with that: the many thousands of drug-related deaths; the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B and C through injecting drug use; and the mental health disorders associated with the use of drugs.

See above

This type of alternative system – regulated supply - would not safeguard these very real public health interests, nor necessarily significantly undermine international organised crime.

How would taking control of the market in dangerous drugs away from gangsters and unregulated street dealers, bringing it within the law and subjecting it to strict legal regulation not 'safeguard these very real public health interests'?. And how would removing a 300 billion pound profit opportunity fail to significantly undermine organised crime? No answer is actually provided.

The benefits of such as system - such as taxation, quality control and a reduction on the pressures on the criminal justice system– are far outweighed by the costs and for this reason, it is one that this Government will not pursue either domestically or internationally.

Note, and this is important, The Government is clearly acknowledging benefits of legalisation and regulation of drugs, specifically financial and in terms of crime reduction. So can we assume from this that if we can persuade them about the completely spurious increased health harms thing then the game is up?

Q: The Government is using the argument that decriminalising illegal drugs “would send the wrong message to the majority of young people.” Isn’t this is simply a convenient excuse?

Legalisation of currently illegal drugs would run entirely counter to the HM Government’s health and education messages. Our educational message – to young people in particular – is that all controlled drugs are harmful and that no one should take them. To legalise their supply for personal consumption would send a disastrous message to the majority of young people who do not take drugs, with the potential risk of increased drug use and abuse.

Note how there has been a shift from legalisation causing drug use to 'expand significantly' in the previous answer, to here there just being 'a potential risk of increased drug use and abuse'. I'm not convinced they've thought this through.

On the subject of messages,
in what other area of public health policy is heavy handed enforcement of criminal law and mass criminalisation of young people used as the primary tool to send out public health messages? Surely the stunning failure of this approach in drug policy (which has witnessed consistent rise in overall drug use, especially of the most dangerous drugs, for two generations) should prompt a pause for thought. Maybe there is a better way to educate the public about the dangers of drugs and encouraging responsible lifestyle choices, through, for example, established public health education channels.

Our drug laws and educational measures complement each other. In isolation their impact would be diminished.

Rubbish. Produce a single piece of research that shows spending a pound on enforcement delivers better educational and public health outcomes than a pound spent on evidence based, targeted public health education and prevention and I will eat my DARE baseball cap. Spending on counterproductive enforcement measures starves funds from public health initiatives that actually work.

Q: Wouldn’t legalisation surely reduce drug related crime?

We cannot look at any putative benefits of legalisation in isolation from its costs.

conceding the point on crime reduction again

If drugs were legalised, it is important to remember that there is other crime associated with drug misuse, for example crimes committed under intoxication.

Crimes committed under intoxication are not being legalised - the legal status of the intoxicant is irrelevant.
The legalisation of drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by organised career criminals; such criminals would simply seek new sources of illicit revenue through crime.

Obviously it is ridiculous to imagine they will all ‘go straight’ and get jobs in McDonalds, or selling flowers, but it is equally absurd to suggest they will all embark on some previously unimagined crime spree. Clearly the impacts will differ at the various levels of the criminal infrastructure and, since reforms will be phased over a number of years and not happen overnight, criminal drug infrastructures will experience a twilight period of diminishing profit opportunities.

Undoubtedly some criminals will seek out new areas of illegal activity and it is realistic to expect that there may be increases in some areas, such as cyber-crime, extortion or other illicit trades (counterfeit goods etc.). However, crime is to a large extent a function of opportunity, and it is impossible to imagine that there is enough criminal opportunity to absorb the manpower currently operating an illicit drugs market with a turns over somewhere in the region of £300 billion pounds a year globally, or over £10 billion a year in the UK alone. Even if there is some diversion into other criminal activity, the big picture will undoubtedly show a significant net fall in overall criminal activity. Getting rid of illegal drug markets is about reducing opportunities for crime.

This concern is a curious one because it seems, when considered closely, to be advocating prohibition as a way of maintaining illegal drug empires so that organised criminals don’t have to change jobs. By contrast, from our perspective the argument is about removing the largest criminal opportunity on earth, not just from existing criminals but, significantly, from future generations of criminals. Ending prohibition holds the prospect of diverting millions of potential young drug producers, traffickers, and dealers from a life of crime.

Neither would a regulated market eliminate illicit supplies, as alcohol and tobacco smuggling demonstrate.

The illegal market in smuggled tobacco is the direct result of taxation policy – specifically the large international differentials in tobacco tax that create a huge profit opportunity for smugglers. For example, tax rates on tobacco vary from zero % in Andorra, to several hundred % in the UK – a far greater range than almost any other mass consumer product. If tobacco taxes were reduced domestically, the international differential and profit opportunity in smuggling and illicit sales would fall accordingly; where there is no tobacco tax there is no smuggled imports or illicit sales. Higher taxes, however, mean higher prices which can effectively dissuade potential new users and encourage existing users to quit, just as falling prices can have the opposite effect. The Government has the difficult task of using taxation policy to balance these two conflicting needs (dissuading use / undermining illegal activity). Crucially, though, because tobacco is legal and regulated, governments are in a position of power to intervene on price, an impossibility with illegal drugs that are entirely at the whim of supply and demand in an unregulated criminal market. It is also worth noting that most smuggled tobacco is at least legally produced in the first instance.

It is worth noting that the profit margins on illegal drugs are so high, often running to 1000% or more, that there is plenty of room for manoeuvre for policy makers regarding tax and price control interventions. Prohibition has turned heroin and cocaine – essentially valueless processed agricultural products - into illicit commodities literally worth more than their weight in gold. Even with high taxes, legally supplied drugs would still dramatically undercut current illicit markets (more discussion on lessons from tobacco and alcohol in 'Tools for the Debate')

Regulation also carries its own administrative and enforcement costs.

which would be relatively minuscule compared to what we currently spend on enforcement

Unless drugs were freely available to everyone, including children, it would not be possible to stop the illicit market operating at the margins of any regulated system.

No one is advocating free availability. That is what we effectively have now and what we are trying to get rid of. The Government seem to be in denial of the fact that under the current regime illegal drugs remain easily available to most young people and a significant minority have used one or more. Regulation cannot eliminate such use, any more than it can with tobacco and alcohol, but controlled availability will create a significantly improved environment for reducing harm, and longer term reductions in demand. One of the key benefits of regulation is that it allows appropriate controls to be put in place over price and availability (location, times of opening and age restrictions) as well as controls over advertising and promotion. Thats the whole point. It is precisely because drugs pose risks that they need to be appropriately regulated, especially for young people. See also 'What about the kids' p.49, After the War on Drug, Tools for the Debate'

Q: The Government rejected the call made in the House of Lords by a number of eminent peers for an Independent Commission to be established, to review policy on drug control. Is this right?

The Government sees no need for any such commission. The
United Kingdom is a signatory, along with almost all other countries in the world, to the three United Nations anti-drugs Conventions and legalisation would breach those Conventions. The Government participates in debates in the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which keeps under review global strategies for dealing with drugs on a global basis. The position the Government takes in these debates is, and will continue to be, consistent with our domestic legislation and international obligations.

This is another one of those bizarre non-answers that only a minister can really deliver with a straight face; we don't need a commission on the drug laws because we have drug laws. What? The CND has never and will never review the efficacy of global prohibtion, as it exists to solely to maintain it.

Q: Isn’t the Government hiding behind its “international obligations” in relation to any move towards decriminalisation or legalisation?

Drugs are a global problem; very often they are produced in one country and consumed in another. A co-ordinated international response is vital in our commitment to tackle drug misuse. The UK is a signatory to the UN Convention on drug control and takes its international responsibilities very seriously. Legalisation, even for a few drugs, would cause substantial damage to international relations and diminish the UK’s standing amongst our international partners. We have no intention of breaking our obligations.

So that is a pretty emphatic 'yes'; Geopolitics is more important than domestic policy. Some honesty at last. Vaguely reminiscent of that BAE Saudi corruption business?

Unilateral action by the Government's towards legalisation would undoubtedly encourage drug tourism as the Dutch have discovered and they are exploring ways to tackle that problem.

Don't do it unilaterally then. There's widespread dissatisfaction with the strictures of global prohibition across Western Europe and beyond, and moves towards reform will be led by a coalition of reform oriented countries. The drug tourism argument is so marginal as to be irrelevant. Dutch drug policy is based on tolerance not legalisation, and there are no plans to abandon the approach, which has been conspicuously more effective than that of the UK.
Q: Doesn’t the Government have room for manoeuvre on legalisation of the possession and use of drugs under the United Nations Conventions?

The United Nations Conventions oblige us to adopt the offence of possession. However, the legal framework within which this the possession offence in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 sits is a lot more subtle than it first suggests, allowing both the police and the judiciary the discretion to take into account all the circumstances of the offence.

I'm not completely clear what they are driving at here. There is clearly room for the UK Government to define penalties for possession, and this can include moves to civil rather than criminal penalties (so like a driving fine rather than a criminal record) or as many countries already do, just direct police/judiciary to not enforce, ie depenalise / de facto decriminise. This discretion is for policy makers, rather than police and judiciary. this is a seperate issue from legal regulation of drug production and supply. See p.54 of 'Tools for the Debate'


Thats all for now. But if you really want to get to grips with this debate please do take look at the guide we have produced specifically for the purpose; After the War on Drugs - Tools for the Debate. It covers everything here and more in plenty of detail.


john-boi said...

great stuff Steve.

You are doing a great job mate keep up the good work.

I find it incredible that we still persue this failed policy of Prohibition.The damage it causes to our society is grave indeed. In fact I think this one issue is probably the most important to our societies well being. Yet it is ignored by the majority who are fed illinformed propaganda by the Government and media.

Organisations like Transform are hugely important in getting some light onto the damage that Prohibition does to our society.

Anonymous said...

Cut the crap and phoney outrage. You're miffed because the battle for legalising drugs is over and you lost! Get real. Move on.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
Cut the crap and phoney outrage.

Nothing phoney about my outrage Anony Mouse.

How about debating the points raised, rather than spouting immature insults eh? Mind you, that's all prohibitionists have left I suppose.

What I find amusing is the assumption - stated as fact - that increased use of a drug automatically results in increased harm.

Of course the way the drug is used, the reasons it's used, the nature of that use and the profile of the users is far more important than the simple number of users. Actually, never mind amusing, that assumption is just so simplistic as to actually be insulting.

How the hell do these people get elected?

Well done again Steve, keep up the good work.

Steve Rolles said...

Anon. I'm more reassured and faintly amused than outraged.

But seriously, its not a battle and I'm not your enemy. This is a rational policy debate over which of the spectrum of policy options on offer will produce the best outcomes. It is not the evil pro drug forces you imagine, verses the righteous anti-drug forces you think you represent. Whilst it might suit your personal narrative, the reality of the debate is somewhat more sophisticated and nuanced than that. this is about social polic, rational evaluation, and public health and well being, not culture wars, polarised moral debates and party politics.

At least the Home Office are taking the reform position seriously enough to produce a response (albeit a poor one). I don't think the points they make stand up to scrutiny and I'm saying why. If you want to defend an enforcement approach, or argue that the past 37 years have been a success then make your case rather than getting all stroppy.

Anonymous said...

It is vitally important that a cost/benefit analysis of prohibition and other policies such a regulated supply is undertaken. So that comparisons can be made.

Until then the Government will continue to assert, without evidence, that the net cost of any other policy than prohibition will be greater.

It is hard to imagine how the net cost of another policy could be greater. For instance, the current economic and social cost of the current policy, prohibition, has been estimated by the Home Office to be £15.4 billion per year (Roughly £14 billion of which is drug related crime and criminal justice system costs and the remainder primarily being health related costs), this excludes the cost of the drug strategy, another £1bn, and many of the other costs, for instance to children whose parents are problem drug users.

It is believed that most of these costs are generated by the estimated 330,000 so called problem drug users each year.

£14 billion/330,000 = £42,424 crime costs per problem drug user per year.

£1.4 billion/330,000 = £4,242 health costs per year per problem drug user.

So the Government is asserting that policies such as regulated supply, which they concede would have tax raising and crime reductions benefits would have a greater net cost, primarily due to increased use.

So even if the health costs per problem drug user were to remain the same under a regulated supply policy (there are good arguments however to say that they would decrease) and if crime costs were not eradicated, but reduced by £10 billion (although this is generous to prohibition) this means that there would need to be (£10 billion/£4,242 = 2,357,379) an additional 2.4 million problem drug users (crack and or heroin users) in a regulated supply for prohibition to be preferable.

Is it realistic to assume that would happen? Where is the evidence for this which gives the Government confidence that prohibition is the best option? There is none.

The Government won't be doing this analysis and until they do they will be able to continue to assert that prohibition has the lowest net cost.

Who will? Transform? Hopefully at the very latest before the development of the next drug strategy in 2018!

Anonymous said...

Cut the crap and phoney outrage. You're miffed because the battle for legalising drugs is over and you lost! Get real. Move on.

Comparing the quality of this argument to anything put forward by Transform or a rational intelligent human being...

I am persuadable. If I see the argument which makes it clear regulation/legalisation is poor by comparison to prohibition, I want to be educated.

After all, it would be a whole lot easier if it were the right choice wouldn't it?

So the UK has a 10+ billion pound industry of prohibition. I do worry where all those people would go. Perhaps the best argument for prohibition now is to protect jobs :) lol. At least it would be an honest point.

Steve you're magic. Keep going. Make them answer.