Thursday, February 28, 2008

Transform in the Guardian: commentary on the new drug strategy

The following article is in todays Guardian online Comment is Free. Theres an open debate taking place below - the usual CIF knockabout stuff. There was also an abridged 'teaser' version in the Guardian print edition.

Policy Narcosis
The government keeps returning to a punitive-prohibitionist stance on drugs when every informed view, including its own analysts', advises otherwise

Steve Rolles

Despite the headline-grabbing new announcements, the new drug strategy is essentially a restatement of the previous one, and doomed to perpetuate the same disastrous failings, primarily because - as Paul Flynn observes - it remains dogmatically rooted in the outdated principles of a punitive prohibitionist approach. The big new initiatives on seizures of criminal assets, and linking benefits to treatment uptake, will operate at the margins of the strategy and will not have any meaningful impact on overall efficacy.

Asset seizures are nothing new and the move to seizures on arrest, as opposed to charge or prosecution, is quite simply illegal and unlikely ever to happen. The strategy's target is to raise asset seizures to £350m a year - a minor tax on the £7bn a year UK illegal market's turnover, even in the doubtful event of it being achieved. Notwithstanding the fact that it is the prohibition that creates the assets in the first instance, there is no evidence that asset seizures are a significant deterrent to the violent gangsters who control the trade (although the US experience demonstrates how linking seized funds to policing budgets or service provision can corrupt and distort policing priorities).

Linking benefits to uptake of treatment provision similarly bears the hallmarks of populist posturing. The reality is that, in any one year, the vast majority of problematic users are not ready or willing to stop. Coercing the least able or willing is offensive to most people's definition of treatment (despite the treatment industry's collusion with it), and its results no better than non-coerced interventions. Obvious concerns arise that the policy might lead to the withdrawal of benefits from some of the most desperate and needy members of society, most of whom already suffer multiple problems with mental health, housing and employment. The negative consequences could be serious: increased offending, increased social exclusion and decreased likelihood of engagement with treatment and support services.

The new strategy restates a series of highly misleading claims for the success of the previous one, based on misrepresented and cherry-picked statistics, or process successes that have no bearing on policy outcomes. The inability of the Home Office to tell the truth about what has worked, and what has not, is at the heart of the problem with the new strategy; there has been no critical analysis of past failings and no serious engagement with any new policy ideas or alternative approaches. Indeed, no policies were presented during last year's consultation on which to consult, certainly not the headline initiatives announced today. Forget the mature debate about legalisation and regulation that the Home Affairs Select Committee (including David Cameron) called for back in 2002. Nowhere in the consultation was there even any mention of the less contentious incremental reforms that have an extensive evidence base from around the world such as moves to civil, rather than criminal, penalties for drug possession, or proven harm-reduction measures such as supervised injecting rooms.

The strategy's most alarming failings are in the arena of supply-side drug control, where the Home Office claims of success have been the most outrageously misleading and the restatement of previous policy in the new strategy the most alarming. As Transform has repeatedly highlighted, a number of high-level internal documents, along with a whole series of authoritative parliamentary, academic and independent NGO analyses have demonstrated that not only are supply-side interventions hugely expensive (£3bn a year) and ineffective (drugs are substantially cheaper and more available than ever before), they are actively counterproductive - creating £16bn a year in crime costs. Assuming government maintains its commitment to prohibition, crime costs could approach £200bn over the next decade.

Can we assume ignorance on the government's part with regard to the counterproductive nature of their policy at home and abroad? Absolutely not. In June of 2003, the cabinet was presented with the PM's Strategy Unit drugs report, which informed them in devastating detail that supply-side enforcement was the major cause of drug-related harm, not only in the UK, but in Afghanistan and Colombia, too. The new strategy demonstrates, yet again, how evidence and sound analysis have become the latest casualties in the ongoing war on drugs and drug users.

note: this version is an edited version of what I submitted. The title and subheading are by the Guardian editor.

Also in CIF today:

Duped on dope

Amid all the hype about the government's new 10-year drug strategy, does anyone remember that the last one failed?

from Drug law reform legend Paul Flynn MP


chrisbx515 said...

Some of the new proposals and the thinking behind the strategy has more than a whiff of the 'Just say no' campaigns in the Regan/Thatcher years! Also the drive towards a more abstinence based treatment as a goal again is unrealistic and goes against the harm minimisation ethos.

Steve Rolles said...

I don't think they have really pushed a dogmatic abstinence only position. They have been clear to caveat it and that it is a desirable outcome. Abstinence is very political obviously - especially with recent IDS Tory paper pushing a hard-line abstinence position. The rhetoric has been effected more by that than anything else.