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.


landsker said...

It is interesting to note that here in the UK, there is a pharmeceutical product "Sativex", which is basically a tincture of cannabis, and is available on prescription to sufferers of multiple sclerosis, and other unspecified ailments and conditions.

In parts of the United States and Canada, in Belgium, Holland and Spain, Cannabis is seen as an innocent intoxicant, and a very useful medicine.
In Holland, the sale of cannabis is open and subject to state control, regulation, and importantly, taxation.
So why must Britons face up to 14 years of incarceration for involvement with this perfectly natural plant.
Unless of course they buy the (Bayer/GW) government-licensed medicinal cannabis, "Sativex", at which point the government smiles and counts the cash.

One has to ask, what is the real crime?
To use cannabis, or to use non-corporate cannabis upon which no taxes have been paid.

Tim McSweeney said...

Legalisation: more a case of the public doesn’t want to go there?

The UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) aims to provide an objective analysis of UK drug policy. It is within this brief that colleagues and I were commissioned to produce an independent evidence-based review of the effectiveness of current strategies for dealing with illicit drug markets and distribution networks within the UK and to identify gaps in our knowledge and understanding about these approaches, which aim to contribute towards reducing the supply, demand and harms associated with illicit drugs.

As Steve’s article rightly notes the extent of the ‘collateral damage’ associated with – and even caused by - the current prohibition of drugs is undeniable. In fact many of these consequences and harms featured prominently in our report to the UKDPC. The report also acknowledged that in the longer-term even quite modest rises in illicit drug use and/or the continued resilience of drug markets to enforcement efforts are likely to exert increasing pressure on government to re-examine and debate more openly the current legislative structure for controlling drugs. This could include options for decriminalisation or legal regulation and control. I would certainly welcome such a debate.

However, this seems unlikely in the short-term - not least because the apparent reluctance of politicians to engage – publicly at least – in such a discussion is seemingly matched by the public’s lack of desire for change on this important issue. While accepting that public opinion can be variable and inconsistent on this subject it is interesting to note the results from a survey conducted during May 2008 for the European Commission, which featured recently on the Transform site. This questioned 12,000 15 to 24 year-olds (the peak age for illicit drug use) from 28 European countries about their views and experiences of drugs. For the first time it considered levels of public support for replacing the current enforcement paradigm with state regulated supply. The results were pretty unequivocal: between 94 and 97 per cent felt that drugs like heroin, cocaine and ecstasy should remain banned. Even among young Britons, who were the strongest advocates for legalisation (22%) and more likely to consider clampdowns against drug dealers and traffickers to be ineffective (48%), levels of support for a continued ban on drugs like heroin (96%) and cocaine (92%) remained high.

It strikes me that unless and until we can at least become more effective at regulating the use of a drug like alcohol and minimising the considerable social, health and crime-related harms associated with its misuse – which annually are estimated to cost the country in the region of £20 billion – then it seems unlikely that any calls for a wider debate on exploring alternative policy options for dealing with illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine will become much more persuasive in the eyes of the public.

Tim McSweeney
Institute for Criminal Policy Research
King’s College London

Danny K said...

Tim, your position would appear to be that UKDPC does not analyse legal regulation for three reasons: 1 Because UK politicians won't engage in the discussion 2 Becuase the UK population does not support it and 3 Because alcohol is not regulated very well.

These are not arguments against analysing an alternative policy based upon legal regulation. I would guess that there was a time when politicians wouldn't engage in a debate on the legal status of homosexuality, when the public was opposed to the law changing and alcohol was badly regulated.

The quesion would still arise as to whether an objective analysis of the effect of criminalising homosexuality would include a detailed examination of legalising gay sex.

The reasons you outline above seem to have more to do with being seen to be out of step with the opinions of politicians and the public. The issue of the poor regulation of alcohol is a red herring, in so far as we need to review the effectiveness of the regulation of all drugs, both illicit and licit.

Isn't one of the jobs of academics and NGOs to explore issues with which politicians and the public will not or cannot engage?

Anonymous said...

Tim, I don't see how you can compare alcohol regulation with possible drug regulation. The different brandings and companies that produce different types of alcoholic beverages make it an extremely hard substance to control. Now that we have had decades of misuse and misregulation, there is no hope of controlling its use entirely, maintaining current levels and changing attitudes will take a long, long time to reverse as it is ingrained on our conscious that alcohol is acceptable to misuse.

Currently illegal drugs do not have the same attitudes to them (although some drugs go through spells of cultural popularity), and investing all the money currently spent on enforcement should, in the event of decriminalisation, be spent on serious education to ensure people know the risks of the substances they are taking.

If you compare alcohol and tobacco, the major difference is that tobacco comes in two major forms: cigarettes/cigars and rolling tobacco whereas alcohol comes in an incalculable number of forms: beer/lager/wine/vodka/rum/gin etc etc.

With this number of varieties, it is easy to see how a population could get confused as to relative harm, and this is shown with the successful control of cigarettes since the 60s. Cigarette smokers have plummeted through sensible control, education and warnings on packets. The message is rammed home so that everybody who knows what a cigarette is knows that it is harmful. But people still choose to do it, and that is there choice, and the government (and thus the rest of us) profit from those who do want to smoke. This is what drug legislation that Transform and others is aiming for, sensible control and allowing people to take educated choices with their lives, not making stupid mistakes and being criminalised.

I think anyway...