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.”
  • Usnews.com : “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


Anonymous said...

This is also recognised in this article on BBC News:

Anonymous said...

I agree with Martin Powell above, that people are becoming better informed and therefore better able to engage in more meaningful debates. Also, for anybody over the age of about fifty, they have witnessed first hand, the drug problem and (its spin off's) getting worse year by year. They (we) are becoming intolerant of self- appointed experts that continue to parrot the same worn out rhetoric.

And then today - we get UK Drug Policy Commission's report:

Well, congratulation to the UK Drug Policy Commission for taking only 40 years to confirm the fears of some of the Brain Committee members, who back in the 1960s warned : that if Britain was to adopt the American approach to drug control, we would go on to experience the same type of drug problems, that the USA had already generated for themselves. So even now, the UK Drug Policy Commission today, seems to acknowledge only -what is right in front of its nose and not be able to analyse anything like the whole picture and the real underlying causes. I suppose we can blame the modern schooling system (also copied from the USA) that no longer teaches how to tackle complex problem solving for these short comings.

Back in the 1960s Britain relied on something referred to (by some) as 'The British Method' which essentially had the family doctor preventing the black market from growing by stabilising his newly addicted patient by which ever treatment seemed to work best for that individual.
However, America had better ideas, and started exporting some of their addicts to Britain to overload the National Health Service.
(Back then, just anybody could fly into Brian for free medical treatment and many women came here to have their babies in London Hospitals.)

For the newbie to this subject who would like to understand more about how crazy and counter-productive the American approach is, then I recommend Kevin Booth's film:
The War on Drugs: Part.1

It take a time to watch all eleven parts but it is well worth it, as he covers so much that is normally ignored but is absolutely essential, if one is to start understanding this 'war' it really operates.
All the eleven parts are listed on this Youtube member's page:

Kevin has a biography on Wikipedia that lists his other film documentary on this subject: American Drug War - The Last White Hope, which has won several awards.
Kevin Booth biography

Anonymous said...

Hears hoping that sometime soon we will hear a call for "peace talks in the war on drugs"

chrisbx515 said...

If you heard the people discussing the UK Drug Policy Commission's report this morning on Radio 4 you I do not believe that you have the optimism that the debate is swinging away from a law enforcement approach. It was the same rhetoric as ever and even though harm minimisation was mentioned on several occasions along with education the furthest thing away was any thought of ending prohibition. It has been mentioned on the discussion here on the blogs that in 20 years time the current status que will change and prohibition will be behind us – that day cant’ come soon enough but I am sorry that I am completely despondent and believe that prohibition of drug is here to stay.

Steve Rolles said...

I was on 5 live this morning making the case that the ukdpc report analysis can only point towards legalisation/regulation as the way forward.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry that I am completely despondent and believe that prohibition of drug is here to stay.

Chrisbx515 would feel a whole lot better if he could manage to change his mind on this one, but it sounds like the prohibitionists have managed to stop him thinking positively.

slowly, slowly, catchy monkey

With this particular (political) "climate change" it's not going to happen overnight, but it definately can happen.
It's the existance of groups like Transform that allow the more moderate establishment to stick there neck out into the middle ground of progressive reform.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The url quoted previously requires the addition of "/cannabis".

This is the latest from the most authoritative body at the euro level. A long, but essential read for those seriously engaged in the subject.

john-boi said...

if you listened to the general public on the 5 live phone in you would say that the end of prohibition is just round the corner. As usual with these things the Politicians seem to be behind the general population
you can listen to again for the next 7 days here

at around 10.25am there was a Professor on saying how pure Heroin is quite benign and the main problem with heroin is the adulteration associated with prohibition

Anonymous said...

Prohibation will be here forever.

Nuff Said