Thursday, July 31, 2008

Transform transformed - our new strategy and structure

Transform’s Board has recently carried out a comprehensive review of the organisation and the challenges we face over the next few years.

It has become clear that attaining a rational drug policy cannot be achieved by an exclusive focus on the Home Office and relevant politicians. To accomplish change we need to engage with opinion formers and decision makers on a much wider basis. We need to achieve policy climate change. Transform’s Board has agreed to prioritise work over the next five years in three key areas.

Firstly we will be highlighting the international dimensions to drug policy. Drug policy in the UK and other states is underpinned by a number of international treaties that are based on the principles of prohibition. The harms caused by drug policy and the ‘war on drugs’ are international, with the trail of harm generated by prohibition stretching from producer countries, through transit nations to user countries. In all cases these harms are disproportionately experienced by the poorest and least powerful members of society. As well as highlighting these international consequences within Transform’s work we will be looking at developing a number of alliances, that will include both organisations based and operating in other countries and UK organisations who work internationally.

Secondly Transform will be focusing on promoting wellbeing as the key paradigm for drug policy. In partnership with a number of academics we are looking at developing methodologies that allow the wellbeing impact of both existing and proposed drug policy regimes to be evaluated. This work will underpin our continued campaigning for the transfer of drug policy responsibility away from criminal justice agencies to public health authorities. The law enforcement strategies central to current drug policy generate considerable additional harms and have clearly failed. A public health and wellbeing approach to drug policy would be much more effective. However, to achieve this we need to build a wide coalition within the heath and allied professions in support of such an approach.

A major aspect of this work will be supporting the development of the Drugs and Health Alliance (DHA). The DHA is a coalition of agencies campaigning for drug policy to move away from failed criminal justice approaches and instead adopt a public health approach. Transform provides the secretariat for the DHA and in that capacity has recently received funding from the Pilgrim Trust which has enabled us to recruit Francesca Solmi as its co-ordinator. Francesca has a BA in International Relations from Sussex University and a Masters Degree in International Relations and Health Policy from SAISJohns Hopkins University. Before joining the DHA she worked with the World Health Organisation on Child Environmental Health issues. She has also interned for the Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome, and for the United Nations Development Program’s liaison office in Washington DC. Francesca will be based in London and will be working for the Drugs and Health Alliance 2.5 days per week.

Thirdly we will be focusing on the economic impact of prohibition based drug policies. We will be carrying out or commissioning a number of studies to identify the cost of existing policies; both to public finances and to the wider economy. These will be supplemented by further work identifying the benefits of alternative policies based on legal regulation and control. This strand of our work will set out the strong economic case for adopting rational drug policies and further broaden the coalition supporting drug policy reform.

In addition to this refocusing of our research and campaigning work we have reviewed how we are organised and established a new organisational structure. This structure will see Transform’s staff organised into three teams, Research, Policy and Communications, and Operations. The Research team will be responsible for developing Transform’s ‘product’ both through directly produced work and by managing commissioned research projects. Steve Rolles, who has been the lead author of all our major publications would become the Head of Research and will work with Emily Crick our Research Associate. Steve is based in London and Emily in Bristol.

The Policy and Campaigns team will disseminate our material and communicating the case for change. Danny Kushlick moves to a new post as Head of Policy and Communications to head up this team and will be working with Martin Powell, our new Communications Associate. Martin brings with him extensive experience of working in the charitable sector having spent over ten years at environmental and international development campaign groups including Friends of the Earth, the World Development Movement and as Co-Chair of the Jubilee Debt Campaign. Martin has a degree in applied chemistry and a postgraduate diploma in environmental science, policy and planning. Office based volunteers, student placements and interns will supplement these teams. Francesca Solmi the DHA’s co-ordinator will be based in this team.

The third team, Operations will focus on Transform’s funding and organisational management. A new post of ‘Director of Operations’ is being established with overall responsibility for management of the organisation. This post will work closely with Jane Slater, Operations Co-ordinator and they will both focus on human resources, funding, finances and project management. John Moore is currently filling this post on an interim basis.

The new strategy opens up a range of exciting possibilities for Transform and the restructuring utilises the strengths of our staff, enabling us to maximise Transform’s impact and influence.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Guardian: legalisation is a no-go area

This short response to today's UKDPC report appears in the Guardian's Comment is free section. Comments can be posted on the Guardian site for the next three days. The online copy is an edited version of the submitted text and the title and subheading are by the copy editors.

Legalisation is a no-go area

A report on drug policy, like so many before it, fails to recognise the simple fact that prohibition is actually part of the problem

Steve Rolles. Wednesday July 30 2008

The publication today by the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) of its thorough review of existing literature on the failure of efforts to tackle the supply of illegal drugs, whilst welcome, is yet another example of a report that fails to notice the elephant in the room. Prohibition and its enforcement not only fails to restrict the availability of drugs but is itself the root cause of many of the most significant drug-related harms.

For the UK's lawmakers and enforcers it will make yet more grim reading, telling a familiar story of the systemic failure of UK supply-side drug enforcement to have any positive impact, with drugs becoming progressively cheaper, more available and more widely used over the past four decades. Whilst usefully restated, this critique is nothing new, following in the footsteps of numerous other reports including those from the Police Foundation (2000), the Number 10 strategy unit (2003) and the RSA (2007).

All of these reports, however, suffer from the same conceptual flaw: they begin their analysis with the assumption that prohibition is a given rather than a policy option. It is not just that enforcement of prohibitions on drug production and supply are merely expensive and ineffective, or even that they often have disastrous unintended consequences, but rather that their enforcement actually creates the problem in the first instance. Failing to acknowledge the primary role prohibition has in creating the problems of illegal markets dooms any policy recommendations that follow.

The UKDPC report, for example, highlights how more strategic enforcement may be able to reduce the negative social impacts of drug dealing by shifting it geographically or changing dealing behaviors (from open street markets to less bothersome closed markets). Whilst these changes, if they can be achieved (and the report cautions that even here the evidence is flimsy), would be beneficial, there is something self-defeating and illogical about trying to minimise the harm caused by enforcement inside a framework that works to maximise it. It is effectively a policy at war with itself.

It is disappointing that when the UKDPC report does touch on the policy alternatives to absolute prohibition it does so only very briefly, with a mention of the legalisation debate tucked away in its final paragraph. When the report's most optimistic conclusion is that better enforcement may be able to "at least ameliorate the harms associated with visible drug markets", it's a shame that an opportunity to explore alternatives – legal regulation and control of drug production and supply that would largely eliminate these socially corrosive illegal markets – was missed.

The broader calls for a greater focus on public health and better evaluation of the outcomes of enforcement policy are obviously sensible, but if we are to have any progress beyond "marginally less disastrous" thinking about policy, we have to look further than prohibition. The contemporary reality that certain drugs can only be purchased from unregulated, untaxed and uncontrolled criminals is the result of policy choices. By treating the debate on alternatives to maintaining organised crime's monopoly as a no-go area, this report helps entrench the view that the basic tenets of prohibition cannot be challenged. In doing so it actually helps perpetuate the policy whose failure it describes so eloquently.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Is Drug Policy Climate Change Happening?

I am new to drug policy campaigning, but have been struck by how easy it is convincing individuals that regulation and control, rather than prohibition would deliver huge benefits. But if I have learned one thing from meeting politicians around the world during years working on environmental and international development campaigns, it is that being right is never enough, you need the right political climate too.

So I was not surprised to hear that when Transform asked then UK Home Office Minister Bob Ainsworth MP to audit the costs and benefits of different drug control options, he said; “Why would we want to do that unless we were going to legalise drugs?” In other words the government has no intention of letting the facts get in the way of a terrible policy that enables them to play “tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime”, when the war on drugs is precisely the opposite. Or perhaps equally the Labour Party was not going to do anything to undermine the UK’s Siamese-twin foreign policy relationship with the Bush Administration.

So to end prohibition we need the public and political climate to change to one supportive of evidence based drug policy. Well, Obama has made some interesting noises as mentioned on this blog before, and if he was elected that might give a bit more latitude for governments to at least audit their drug policies properly without being threatened with US shock-and-awe. But in the end politicians must believe that climate change around drugs policy is happening out there in the real world. And at Transform, after ten long years working on this issue, we see strong hints that it finally is.

Now I don’t pretend we are there yet, but there is a steadily increasing chorus of voices from across the political spectrum, from individual Joe and Mary Public and media voices to senior officials either advocating an end to prohibition, or making statements and producing evidence that underpin regulation and control as the solution. For example, just a small selection from the news over the last couple of days:

  • Manchester Evening News : reporting a former drug addict in Manchester saying; "In a way, legalising drugs could help cut burglaries, drug dealing and a lot of gun crime and turf wars."
  • The US Conservative Voice: “In addition the government needs to … eliminate the 'War on Drugs' which is creating criminal activity on an unprecedented scale."
  • The Canton Rep: Ohio: “The entire "war" on drugs has done nothing except increase demand and fill our prisons and jails while those who should be in prison are on the streets. If you want to control anything, then legalize it and tax it.”
  • : “Regulation can reduce drug use. In two generations, we've halved the number of cigarette smokers not through prohibition but through education, regulated selling, and taxes. And we don't jail nicotine addicts. Drug addiction won't go away, but tax revenue can help pay for treatment.”
  • Gay Byrne, in the Irish Independent: “For how long more than 40 years do you continue to apply a solution [drug prohibition] to a problem, which not only doesn't work, but also which makes the problem worse with every passing day, before someone, somewhere, says that maybe - as in perhaps - there might be a better way?”
  • The New York Times: “Today, a dizzying array of armed groups lord over the farmlands of NariƱo [Columbia]…Their presence reflects the symbiotic nature of the armed groups and the drug trade, each drawing strength from the other… [C]oca growers have nimbly sidestepped almost a decade of fumigation efforts by reorganizing industrial-size farms into smaller plots that are much harder to find and spray from the air. They are taxed and protected by forces on the various sides of the conflict…The FARC and other groups will survive as long as there are safe havens, the flow of drug money and large, remote regions unconnected to the broader economy.”
  • Irish Times: "Illicit substances have been in demand here for at least 350 years; no legal measures have ever made a difference."
Despite politicians paddling desperately against the tide, the reality that we have not just lost the war on drugs but that it is actually making things worse, is seeping into the popular consciousness. And with it the climate in which drug policy is made is changing to one that is increasingly toxic to prohibitionist sound-bite solutions. Eventually, first one, then more and more countries will systematically count the costs of their drug policies, and compare them with alternative regimes. And that, as Bob Ainsworth and his colleagues know only too well, will be the beginning of the end of prohibitiion

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

UN asks NGOs for our view

A fortnight ago I attended the Vienna NGO Committee UN event that will feed into the review process for the UN’s ten-year drug strategy. With our newly gained accreditation from the UN I was invited to take part with 300 other NGOs to create a consensus document that will contribute (albeit in a very limited way) to the UN review.

In the room were NGOs from supporters of blanket prohibition to those supporting legalisation and regulation. I'm not going to go into the detail of the session, which was tortuous in the extreme, as we went through three draft resolutions line by line and word by word. Only time will tell whether it was worth the time and resources spent on the process. Although it could be the start of a more serious engagement by the UN with civil society.

For some intelligent video footage of NGO participants at the event, see the excellent work of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union: Here and here

Other NGOs have already commented comprehensively in their blogs:

The American Civil Liberties Union

The International Harm Reduction Association

and The US Harm Reduction Coalition

image copyright Steve Rolles

The War on Drugs - A Dangerous Fiction

The war on drugs is a non sequitur - and is equally harmful to both producers and consumers, says Misha Glenny in Yesterday's Guardian.

An excellent piece by the author of McMafia. In the article he says:

"The time has come to shout from every rooftop that the war on drugs hands billions of pounds on a plate to criminal syndicates and terrorist organisations every year. Senior policymakers, police commanders and politicians have all told me in private that the war on drugs does nothing to halt the flow of product to market. But they are all too frightened to speak out against the prevailing orthodoxy."

The article trailed a well argued BBC Radio 4 programme on the failure of the war on drugs. Click here to listen again - 'How Crime took on the world.'

Friday, July 18, 2008

UK produces more opium than 24 of Afghanistan's 35 provinces

According to Dr. Liam Fox, Shadow Defence Secretary, in 2007 the UK was the 11th largest producer of opium poppy.

Fox, writing a blog on the CentreRight website says,

'... figures recently released by the Government show that when the United Kingdom is compared with the 34 provinces in Afghanistan the UK ranks an astonishing 11th place in the amount of opium poppy production in 2007.
Figures released by the U.S. State Department show that in 2007 the UK grew more opium poppy than Pakistan.'

Astonishing? Not really, in fact its a pretty daft comparison. The UK production is all legal and for the medical market whilst the Afghan is all illegal and all for non-medical use. Also Helmland alone produces more than half of the country's opium with over 100K hectares, then there's a pretty dramatic fall off with number 8 being only 3K hectares, and UK 2.7K hectares.

I have recently stumbled into one of these opium poppy fields across 'acres of rolling Hampshire fields' as referred to by the Daily Mail and Liam Fox.

I photographed this opium poppy field in Hampshire at the weekend

The Transform blog has previously discussed the hysteria that is occasionally whipped up by media reporting (the Mail's ridiculous coverage in particular) of these 100% legally grown Class A poppies here.

Fox finishes his blog with a reference to the Senlis Council's Poppy for Medicine proposal,

'Not only are we failing to eradicate it [opium poppy], we are growing it at home when we could be buying it from farmers in Afghanistan before it ends up on the black market. The Government tells us that they have to grow poppy in the UK as part of a strategic reserve. I find this ironic considering that the UK is supposed to have the strategic and tactical control of one of the biggest poppy producing places in the world: Helmand Province!'

What he fails to point out, as Steve has argued previously is that UK, NATO and Afghan forces in Helmand province (and elsewhere in Afghanistan) don't have the infrastructure, or security situation, to prevent leakage into the illegal market which is fueling the conflict and lack of security. Even if they could, demand for the illicit product would remain and economic forces would inevitably lead to cultivation elsewhere, either in Afghanistan (most likely by the same people), or elsewhere (the 'balloon' effect identified recently by the director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. )

Hampshire police (and other UK police forces in counties where poppies are grown) on the other hand have a better grip on 'security' than their counterparts in Afghanistan, as well as substantially less to worry about; there seems to be no problems with legally grown opium poppies being diverted into the illegal market in the UK. However, having found no fences to prevent me accessing the field (and what use would they be anyway), I can only conclude that those involved in the production of medical opiates rely on the fact that the general public has no idea what is growing across our purple and pleasant lands. Or, more likely, couldn't care less.

Either way it demonstrates that there is absolutely no need for Afghanistan to be growing any of the opiates consumed in the UK. This problem is one of our own making and an alternative path that doesn't involve any terrorists, wars or dead British soldiers is there for all to see. Here's the one line version for those who have not worked it out yet:

legal production for non-medical use.

The choice is ours, and I have the photos to prove it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rolling Stone: Obama on ending the drug war

An interview with Barack Obama is the centre piece of this month's Rolling Stone magazine. Unsuprisingly, given the the magazine's youth culture niche and long history as vocal critics drug war (see brilliant feature articles here, here and here), they hit the likely next US president with a serious question about its failure and what he plans to do about it:

RollingStone: The War on Drugs has cost taxpayers $500 billion since 1973. Nearly 500,000 people are behind bars on drug charges today, yet drugs are as available as ever. Do you plan to continue the War on Drugs, or will you make some significant change in course?

Obama: "Anybody who sees the devastating impact of the drug trade in the inner cities, or the methamphetamine trade in rural communities, knows that this is a huge problem. I believe in shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we focus more on a public-health approach. I can say this as an ex-smoker: We've made enormous progress in making smoking socially unacceptable. You think about auto safety and the huge success we've had in getting people to fasten their seat belts.

The point is that if we're putting more money into education, into treatment, into prevention and reducing the demand side, then the ways that we operate on the criminal side can shift. I would start with nonviolent, first-time drug offenders. The notion that we are imposing felonies on them or sending them to prison, where they are getting advanced degrees in criminality, instead of thinking about ways like drug courts that can get them back on track in their lives — it's expensive, it's counterproductive, and it doesn't make sense."

The language of Obama's response is very positive - first up he is talking about change, more significantly, a paradigm shift towards a greater focus on public health, implicitly away from the criminal justice focus of the past four decades 'war on drugs'. Interestingly he uses as examples of policy success; smoking and seatbelts, where sensible regulation (using civil rather than criminal law) combined with public health education has delivered remarkable outcomes. He does not use criminal justice crackdown examples, and the tough punitive language of zero tolerance, and rhetoric of war that has dominated the political discourse on drug policy in the US is conspicuously absent.

The policy positions he actually identifies address some of the more egregious negative outcomes of the drug war's long term systemic failure - namely the horrendous human and financial cost of mass incarceration of non violent drug offenders. 'It's expensive, it's counterproductive and it doesn't make sense' he concludes, hopefully - even if he is not saying it at this stage in his political journey - an analysis he will be able to apply to entire prohibitionist paradigm. We wouldn't realistically expect him to advocate for, or even bring up as a debate, the idea of progressive moves towards legal regulation and control of drug production and supply at this stage, but he has shown a willingness to think, to change and to lead.

The significance of a more rational voice in drug policy based in the Whitehouse cannot be underestimated. The US utterly dominate the international drug policy arena, and where they go others follow so maybe we can be cautiously optimistic that a significant global paradigm shift really is on the horizon.

As long as that other bloke doesn't win in November.

see also: Barack Obama supports cannabis decriminnalisation

Drugs, knives and moral panics

The problems society faces with drugs and knives, and the solutions required, are dramatically different, but there are very marked similarities in the media and political discourse around both. Comparing the current moral panic about knife crime to the recent moral panic about cannabis in particular we can see much in common.

Both media panics erupted on the basis of individual tragedies, stories of young people developing mental illness in the case of cannabis, stories of young people dying after stab wounds for knives. In neither case was there actually a dramatic nation-wide culture shift that prompted the respective media frenzies; levels of cannabis use have been quite stable or falling for since 2002, and whilst knife crime has indeed been rising, it has been at a small but consistent rate over the same period, during which gun crime has experienced a comparable fall and violent crime overall is down (if notoriously problematic stats on drugs and crime are to be believed). Both examples have shown how statistics can be misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented to serve a particular given end, and for the tabloids that end is shock headlines that shift copy. They will ensure that there is something to panic about, whether it’s there or not. Last week’s four knife murders in 24 hours was portrayed almost as if it was the End of Days, but when you have around 70 knive murders a year it is inevitable there will be some clusters on a few days; unsurprising statistically but great for panic mongerers.

Sometimes it is difficult to understand what precipitates a media panic, although in the case of cannabis it was clearly centered around political opportunism from Government opponents exploiting the 2004 reclassification to accuse Blair/Brown of being soft on drugs/crime. ‘Soft on drugs’ is a charge that is far more powerful if the dangers of drugs are hyped with statistical shenanigans, and backed up with scary headlines (see above) and heart rending anecdotes of lost or wasted youth. It’s the old trick of stoking up fear and then politically exploiting the hell out of it. Old, but still brilliantly effective.

The knife panic, by contrast, seems to have been more tabloid driven, going into overdrive when one of the victims turned out to be the brother of a soap celebrity (who just happens to be a lad's mag ‘stunna’). Not that this has stopped mainstream politicians of all hues jumping on the bandwagon.

More depressing are the similarities in how politicians respond to endless series of media panics about Britain’s 'feral youth'. The usual response is the time honoured knee-jerk criminal justice crack-down backed with ubiquitous deployment of sound bites featuring the word ‘tough’. Inevitably the two main parties, in their attempts to placate the baying tabloids, then get into a bidding war over who can sound the toughest. The unfortunate but inevitable outcome is yet another ill-thought out, politically driven, reactive, short term, populist criminal justice response – or ‘crack down’. Just as inevitably this response will not be based on more enlightened current research or any evidence of effectiveness and will entirely fail to consider the wider social problems that underlie the symptomatic crises obsessed over by the headline writers. Alternatives to custody, restorative justice, investing in social capital, mental or wider public health based initiatives, addressing social exclusion, provision of recreational facilities for young people etc – all derided as ‘soft’ and weak responses. No, we obviously need to build more prisons.

Knife crime is a terrible problem (as I well know, being one of its victims) but it’s certainly nothing new. Yet the recent media frenzy has led to a raft of new initiatives being announced within an amazingly brief time period, in the last week almost on a daily basis. Meanwhile there is no media panic about, for example, spousal abuse and violence (which kills and injures far more than knives) and no significant policy responses being announced or even contemplated. The same could be said for any number of social problems that, for whatever reason (not sexy enough, gory enough, and/or don’t involve lad’s mag 'stunnas' or Amy Winehouse), don’t merit the attention of the newspaper editors.

Moral panics can be whipped up with quite astonishing speed, prompting the predictably stupid pro-forma government criminal justice led crack down / initiative, and then apparently disappearing from public view almost as quickly. Since its reclassification back to B cannabis has barely warranted a single mention in the media. The level of problems associated with its use amongst young people or the ‘cannabis factories’ run by evil foreign people have not diminished one bit, but there is just no political capital in it anymore, no conflict to get excited about, and the story has blown itself out. The media panic achieved its goal: It’s been re -classified now, everything is OK. Result!

"NEXT! "

And unless some more celebrity relations get stabbed, or an attractive white young female is the next victim, knives will be old news in a few weeks, and disappear just as the recent panics about guns, alcohol, hoodies, cannabis, and child abductions (etc) all have, to be replaced by something new, or recycled after a period of lying dormant (maybe satanic messages in heavy metal records are due a come back?)

If we are ever going to get real solutions to some of these seemingly intractable problems on the streets of Britain’s cities – and no one is denying they exist – what we need is for politicians to have the courage to defy the populist rantings of tabloids or political opponents and to deal with the complex social problems we face as policy scientists rather than pollsters. You are supposed to be our leaders; How about showing some leadership?

It might even help make people respect you again.

photo - thanks to Dean Morrison
cartoon - thanks to Steve Bell, the Guardian

UK Youth Strongest Supporters of Drug Legalisation in Europe

Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) today welcomed the European Commission’s (EC) decision to start using its regular Eurobarometer opinion poll “Young people and drugs” to assess public support for replacing drugs prohibition with state regulated supply.

Transform’s Policy Director Danny Kushlick said;

“We congratulate the EC for recognising that other options than the failed war on drugs are being proposed, and for asking the public about them. This poll shows that many people support new approaches, and it is likely many more at least want them properly explored.

In light of this, the UK Government must stop refusing to assess the costs and benefits of current and alternative ways to combat drug problems, allowing future policy to be based on evidence, not ‘tough on drugs’ posturing that costs lives and wrecks communities. Such an audit would show replacing drugs prohibition with strict control and regulation would cut crime, reduce harm to users, and save billions of pounds.”

Previous versions of the survey on attitudes to drugs amongst EU citizens aged 15-24 were carried out in 2002 and 2004. Only the most recent version in May 2008 asked:

· Whether legalising drugs would be one of the most effective ways for public authorities to combat drug problems.

· Whether heroin, cocaine, ecstasy or cannabis should continue to be banned, or their sale and consumption regulated instead.

The British, Irish and Dutch most favoured the legalisation and regulation of drugs as a way of dealing with drug related problems in society. In the UK and Ireland 22 per cent thought it would be either the most effective, or the second most effective way, followed by the Dutch on 21 per cent.

In the UK and Spain 40 per cent of young people thought the sale and consumption of cannabis should be regulated rather than banned, behind the Netherlands (52 per cent) and the Czech Republic (53 per cent).

Averaged across all 27 EU countries, those polled much preferred so-called “soft” measures for dealing with drug-users e.g. information and prevention campaigns (47 per cent) or the treatment and rehabilitation of users (33 per cent), as opposed to tough measures (23 per cent).


Contact: Danny Kushlick, Head of Policy +44 (0) 7970 174747

Martin Powell +44 (0) 117 941 5810

Notes for Editors:

  1. For a full copy of Flash Eurobarometer No 233 –Young People and Drugs 2008 visit .
  2. The poll was requested by the European Commission’s Directorate-General Justice, Liberty and Security.
  3. In its review of UK drug policy of 2002 the UK Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee (including David Cameron MP) recommended: "That the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways - including the possibility of legalisation and regulation - to tackle the global drugs dilemma."
  4. Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) is the UK’s leading think tank on drug policy reform

Transform Drugs Policy Foundation
, Bristol BS5 0HE, Tel 0117 941 5810

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why crackdowns on drugs in prison completely miss the point

So another report on drugs in prisons, another outline of how bad the problem is, another list of how drugs get into prisons, and set of recommendations for a crackdown - based on, you guessed it, a new co-ordinated strategy, new technology and some new guidelines on best practice. As with previous reports on this issue, (and there have been a series of them going back decades, but all saying essentially the same thing) there is something missing here that renders this report just as pointless as all its predecessors. What's missing is the bigger picture. The courage to ask: why is there such an overwhelming demand for drugs in prison in the first place?

The new Blakey report, having described the five main routes by which drugs get into prisons acknowledges that 'If one route is disrupted or closed then more pressure will be placed on the other routes'. This analysis is central to the problems being faced but is not really explored by Blakey, beyond saying (one feels, without much conviction) that what is needed is a strategy that addresses all the routes in. By brushing past this he's missing the key point, essentially the same economic analysis that can be applied to the failure of prohibition and attempts to enforce supply controls nationally and globally, for which the failure at prison level provides a neat microcosm.

Where there is demand for drugs, but no licit supply, a potentially huge profit opportunity is created for criminal profiteers. The high risk environment of a prison inflates the market price of drugs within its walls (often by several hundred %) beyond their already inflated prices on the illicit market beyond them (for heroin and cocaine - by several several thousand % by the time they hit Britain's streets). So a gram that costs pennies to actually produce can sell for several hundred pounds inside a prison, and it is that sort of profit that encourages the kind of entrepreneurial cunning that can get literally tonnes of Class A drugs into high security prisons, year after year, crackdown after crackdown.

It would be hard to imagine how we could have engineered a worse scenario. Firstly we fill prisons with dependent drug users: 17% are inside for drug offences and more than half of the rest are problem users inside for offending related to their habits. A majority have mental health and emotional or psychological problems contributing to a (hardly surprising) demand for substances that can offer some temporary relief from the tedium, pain and misery of life in a cage. Indeed life inside can be so grim that many prisoners who arrive without a drug problem have developed one by the time they leave. The regular politician's refrain that prison is a good place for addressing drug problems is, in the vast majority of cases, offensively ridiculous (here's a test: present a series of treatment/recovery options to a group of treatment specialist for any given patient and see how many pick prison) . Not only is prison hugely more expensive than even residential rehab (it is actually more expensive than staying at the Ritz hotel), but its brutal reality is far more likely to be damaging and traumatic than healing and rehabilitative.

Into this population of often damaged chaotic dependent drug users we mix a significant number of violent criminal profiteers, most of whom are inside for drug dealing, and most of whom are well connected to the illegal drugs underworld. Who is really surprised at the outcome of this volatile cocktail? The demand for drugs in prison is so great and the profits so astronomical that a situation exists where economic pressures ensure a supply route will always be found. As Blakey says, shut down one avenue and the economic pressure starts to make exploring other ones worth while. At some point the opportunities created even start to entice some prison staff into the market - a point at which any vague hope of preventing drugs in the prisons is effectively lost, and a point long since past.

This is of course exactly the same phenomenon we see on the national and international stage with the hopeless futility of decades of drug eradication, interdiction, and populist nonsense about 'securing our borders' that bears a non-coincidental resemblance to the political rhetoric of the past 48 hours. We have long witnessed 'the balloon effect' that, for example, saw the 'crackdown' on cocaine production in Bolivia more than compensated for by a rise in Colombian production, or similarly how the 'crackdown' on Iranian smuggling routes for Afghan opium has pushed trafficking to new routes through the former Soviet republics to the North. Meanwhile, despite the billions hosed into supply side drug enforcement each year, the illicit trade thrives, drugs are more available and cheaper than ever and the violent gangsters selling them get richer and richer. Not only is the analysis of supply and demand in an unregulated illicit drug trade the same at prison, national and international level, so evidently are the responses: announce a big crackdown, unveil some new technology, produce a new strategy, create a new agency (or rename an old one), then announce your process successes to show you are 'doing something' whilst avoiding those pesky 'outcome' measures.... etc etc...Regardless of scale all such efforts that attempt to defy economic reality are equally futile.

So what is the answer? Firstly, politicians need to move beyond the denial stage of their addiction to punitive responses, to understand and respond to the problem's deeper structural causes, rather than merely deploying yet another doomed (even if sometimes well intentioned) attempt to deal with the symptoms. These causes of the problem lie at the heart of what is wrong with the UK drug policy;

  • The entire punitive culture and prevailing discourse that defaults to punishing, criminalising and imprisoning problem drug users rather than seeking primarily to promote their rehabilitation and wellbeing.
  • The populist political addiction to the use of prison more generally.
  • The symptomatic knee-jerk responses and the inability to engage with the problems that underly most problematic drug use; social and emotional deprivation, social exclusion and the failings of the education and welfare systems, failings of mental health services, failings of the care system, problems in the labour market for key populations, failure of social provision and the lack of investment in social capital for young people, and so on.
  • The prevailing system of absolute-prohibition that creates the illegal drug markets, the criminal entrepreneurs, and the financial pressures that drive dependent drug users into offending in the first place

Some responses advocated by Blakey and others may of course produce some improved outcomes on some measures; more investment in prison treatment is better than none at all for example - and if it can improve health and successfully reduce demand for drugs in prisons then that's a positive step. But such successes will be marginal, only be 'success' relative to the catastrophic failings of the past, and will essentially be reducing problems created by the wider failings of the prohibition-prison drug management model in the first place.

In the medium term we must completely move away from using prison as a sanction for non-violent drug (or drug-related) offenders of any kind, and develop and explore alternatives to custody that are consistently demonstrated to be not only cheaper but far more effective on key indicators - not least re-offending. We must help problem drug users rebuild their lives with appropriate tailored treatment and holistic support (including employment and housing support) rather than punishing and branding them with the stigma of a criminal record. The public have repeatedly been shown to support such cost effective responses and it is a mystery why politicians cannot embrace them and show leadership on this issue, rather than continuing to pander to a small nexus of vitriolic tabloid 'hang'm and flog'm' commentators.

In the longer term we need to have the long overdue review of the whole crumbling edifice of prohibition, its generational failure and its role in crime creation. Central to this is a meaningful exploration of regulatory alternatives to illicit drug markets, ones that are controlled by the state rather than by the mafia, and that sit within a broader policy framework predicated on public health and harm reduction principles, rather than knee-jerk punitive populism and medieval prisons.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Re-establishing the primacy of a public health / harm reduction approach

'After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate' part 10

Once the meaning of control and regulation is made clear, it becomes much easier to grasp that the response to illegal drugs need not be any different to our current response to legal drugs (see ‘fault-lines within existing policy’ ), or for that matter any other issue in the public health arena. Making the case for a public health-led response is crucial to getting the reform message across. It is a concept people are familiar with and understand (in relation to, for example, tobacco policy), and it helps direct the emphasis of the discourse towards evidence-based policy making and harm reduction – and away from the ideological dream of achieving a ‘drug free society’.

The fact that certain drugs are currently dealt with via the criminal justice system is a quirk of the history of prohibition, and not the conclusion of any kind of rational analysis or evaluation. Drugs, quite simply, are primarily a public heath issue and should be dealt with as such by the relevant public health agencies (see principles of drug policy).

Prohibition not only undermines public health efforts to reduce drug harms (by diverting budgets to enforcement and stigmatising the most vulnerable problem users with criminality) it actually increases harms associated with use by encouraging high risk behaviours (e.g. injecting/ sharing needles), it stifles access to accurate safety information, and ensures that dangerous drugs are of unknown strength and purity.

Public health interventions can be shown to be effective (e.g. needle exchanges, treatment programmes, controls on tobacco advertising), criminal justice interventions generally cannot.

Illegal drugs are unique in the public health arena in attempting to use criminal law as the primary method of educating the public. We have a whole range of alternative methods for public health education in schools, workplaces, public spaces, media and the home that can be shown to be more effective (and don’t involve making criminals out of a third of the country).

If the case for a public health-led response can be made effectively, it can only lead in one direction – away from irrational ideological commitments to prohibition and towards evidence based regulation and control. Once you have people thinking along these lines you are well on the way to winning them over.

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6
part 7
part 8
part 9

Print copies are also available, please contact Transform

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The threat of the 'milk run'

The 'milk run' is a terrifying new youth phenomenon sweeping Australia which may soon reach Britain's shores. It involves Aussie High School kids having an end-of-year 'muck up' day: After drinking a litre of milk and some food colouring, they take a shot of lemon juice, then proceed to run, jump and shake themselves up until the coloured mixture curdles and comes back to greet the road, creating a sick homage to Jackson Pollock in psychedelic cottage cheese. The whole twisted ritual has been captured with secret cameras and posted on YouTube:

Alarmed policy makers have been left confused and impotent as the dangerous new youth cult involves no drugs for them to ban. Shorn of the more familiar media-friendly knee-jerk criminal justice response they have been mooting banning milk, lemon juice or food colouring - although the practicality of these is questioned by a few more rational voices, less swept up in the current milk-run panic. Personally I think we cannot gamble with the health of the next generation and so support the zero tolerance option. If we are to protect the UK's youth from the incoming yogurt tsunami we must immediately imprison all Aussie High school kids*.

*possibly on a remote island as far from the UK as possible