Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Parliamentary Cocaine Trade Report - Good, bad and downright ugly

Today the Home Affairs Committee publishes a report on the Cocaine Trade - to which Transform made a written submission and was invited to give oral evidence. Whilst there is some limited useful content and recommendations, the report overall is desperately disappointing and unlikely to impress or please anyone. It is characterised by weak analysis and poor scholarship, leading to a set of mostly pointless recommendations. Occasionally the recommendations are actively obnoxious (see sentencing recommendations below) - the overwhelming impression being of an ill considered and rushed inquiry that has been badly chaired and poorly supported - and one that has a distinct pre-election feel to it (the evidence has been shaped around a pre-decided narrative).

This is particularly disappointing coming from the same committee that in 2002 produced one of the most important, thorough and influential drug policy reports of the modern era (especially given the fact that three of the committee members from 2001 are still members). Also disappointing is that the report lacks anything approaching the analytical rigor of the last major Select Committee drug report; the Science and Technology committee report on the classification system from 2006, with key analysis from that 2006 report (on, for example, drug harms or the deterrent effect) notably absent from this new HASC cocaine report. It really does seem like a massive step backwards - with few lessons learned, and others forgotten or actively abandoned.

Before chronicling some of the report's multiple failings, first we should acknowledge its strengths. Transform is pleased that the Committee has called for “a full and independent value–for–money assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and related legislation and policy”. This was one of Transform's specific calls to the committee in both our written and oral evidence, and something we have campaigned for since 2002.

We hope that the Government will now reconsider our call to evaluate drug policy using established Impact Assessment tools in the light of this new HASC recommendation, as it was dismissed by the PM, following a private meeting with a Transform representative last year.

We were also pleased to see this recommendation being supported by discussion of the Home Office 'value for money' study that Transform secured publication of earlier this year. Given that the media will almnost certainly ignore this section of the report I think it is worth reproducing in full (note: i. Steve Rolles is from Transform, ii. David Nutt was still chair of the ACMD at this point):

20. Some witnesses suggested there was a need for a cost/benefit analysis of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, to assess the evidence of whether the Government’s drugs policy offered value for money. Steve Rolles called specifically for a value for money impact assessment of the 1971 legislation, and told us that the Act had “never been subject to that kind of scrutiny and it is time that it was”. Professor Nutt supported an impact assessment, saying “I think my Council would be quite comfortable if people wanted to review the Act”

21. On 21 January 2010 the Home Office published an evaluation completed in June 2007 by an academic at the University of York entitled Drugs Value for Money Review, which Transform had been campaigning for three years to have released under a Freedom of Information request. The review as published made two key conclusions. Firstly, that there was a real lack of data collected by Government to enable an assessment of how effective its drug policy had been, particularly on the supply side. It stated:
Policies to reduce the availability of drugs produced the greatest analytical challenge. The absence of robust and recognised measures of success, combined with a limited base of research evidence makes it particularly difficult to draw conclusions about supply-side policy.
Secondly, it concluded that Government spending on drugs had not been properly evaluated, making it hard to draw conclusions about whether resources were appropriately allocated:
There is no single, comprehensive, agreed overview of cross-government expenditure. Evaluations of effectiveness are patchy and incomplete, making it difficult to assess value for money and to decide how to best allocate resources in the future
There was a similar indictment in analysis carried out by the UK Drug Policy Commission—a grouping of expert drug treatment and medical practitioners—in April 2007, which concluded that it was “difficult to estimate government expenditure on drug policy, as it is not transparently reported” and that “the UK invests remarkably little in independent evaluation of the impact of drug policies, especially enforcement. This needs redressing if policy makers are to be able to identify and introduce effective measures in the future”

22. The Home Office review was intended to inform the Government’s new Drugs Strategy 2008–2018.32 However, the publication of the strategy in February 2008, only eight months after the review was completed, suggests it is extremely unlikely that the serious criticisms voiced in the review about the lack of an evidence base on which to assess the effectiveness of expenditure on drugs could have been addressed in time.

24. We were very interested to learn that a Government review completed in 2007—the publication of which the Home Office had fought for three years—concluded that the effectiveness and value for money of the Government’s drugs spending could not be evaluated. It is at best careless that the Government nevertheless pressed ahead and published its Drugs Strategy in February 2008 without publishing a proper value–for–money analysis of where resources would be most effectively targeted. We therefore support calls for an full and independent value–for–money assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and related legislation and policy. This assessment must also address the concerns about inadequate data collection raised in the 2007 review.
Beyond this section there is little positive to be said about the report, and much to criticize. Large swathes of it are essentially a workmanlike summary of evidence taken from various sources, prominently including the UNODC World Drugs Report, and various documents from the EMCDDA, NTA, SOCA, UKBA and others. There is nothing wrong with any of this of course, the researchers having done an adequate job of compiling some potentially useful supporting evidence. There are, however, some serious sins of omission. The problems come partly from the evidence that was missed or ignored, but perhaps more importantly, the weak policy analysis that flows from all the evidence presented as we will discuss.

The most notable omission from the evidence considered is the World Health Organisation' s cocaine report from 1995 (details and link to the full report here) the largest global study of cocaine use, risks and policy ever undertaken. This report was suppressed under pressure from the US (until it was leaked into the public domain years later) essentially because it did not fit with the prevailing prohibitionist political narrative. That the HASC has chosen to overlook it, despite it being flagged up in Transform's written submission (and sent separately to the committee secretariat) is a telling reflection on the committee's mindset.

The tone and overarching narrative of the report are framed in the press release that accompanies it, which contains some very dramatic language about the nature of cocaine, and from the outset makes the cardinal error of conflating prohibition policy harms with drug use harms:
"In a report published today, Wednesday 3 March, the Home Affairs Committee warns that a deadly, socially and environmentally destructive drug seems to be becoming more widely acceptable in the UK, and says more must be done to tackle the demand side in the UK alongside international efforts to disrupt smuggling."
This mistaken conflation of drug use and drug policy harms (something that, disappointingly, David Nutt's evidence also failed to challenge) was something Transform specifically warned against in its written submission;
"Any discussion of the cocaine trade in the UK, and what our response should be, requires that we separate the public health problems associated with cocaine use per se, from the secondary criminal justice harms associated with its prohibition."

The press release then produces a 'must try harder' admonition of supply side enforcement agencies' commitment to 'stemming the flow':

"The Committee praises SOCA’s and UKBA’s general approach, namely to actively disrupt the cocaine trade overseas and thereby prevent it reaching the UK..... The Committee was shocked to discover only 3.5 tonnes of the estimated 25–30 tonnes of cocaine which does enter the UK border was seized in the UK last year. The Committee says interception of 12–14% of cocaine reaching the UK is ‘woefully inadequate’, while UKBA’s target to seize 2.4 tonnes of cocaine this year is ‘deeply unambitious’ and lower than the amount it seized in both previous years"

Adding that :
"The Committee suggests UKBA’s low seizure target reflects a culture of complacency"
This summarizes the key failing of the report's analysis; the implied suggestion that the failings of supply side enforcement could somehow be solved with more resources or better organisation, or that the supply of cocaine could genuinely be prevented such that the cocaine problem would somehow diminish or even disappear. This all harks back to the denial-of-reality prohibitionist analysis that: drugs are bad, therefore we will ban them and make the problem go away. Once you have bought into this hopelessly naive premise, as the committee chair seems to have done, all other facts and analysis naturally have to be shaped around it. This is the process that we then have to endure for the majority of the report.

For no obvious or stated reason, the report spends an inordinate amount of time critiquing both UK cocaine seizure rates and the collection and presentation of seizure statistics, somehow managing to completely avoid grappling with the actual impact of seizures on levels of availability. It is important to bear in mind that seizure rates, even if you buy into the overarching prohibitionist analysis (see above), are a proxy measure (or process measure) for the efficacy of supply side enforcement - the actual outcome measures of which are levels of availability, and ultimately levels of use/misuse. At one point the report does note that:
The doubling in wholesale price of cocaine at the UK border between 1999 and 2009 does indicate that more effective supply-side enforcement may have squeezed the supply of the drug to the UK. However, we do not consider that the substantial fall in purity of cocaine at street level can be attributed to supply-side enforcement. The consistency of purity at the UK border but fluctuating levels found in street–level seizures within the UK—some with as little as 5% purity—suggest to us that the fall in purity is not so much driven by overall squeezing of the cocaine supply to the UK, but rather associated with the emergence of a ‘two-tier’ market in which there is demand for lower price, more heavily cut cocaine on the street, as well as higher end product by other consumers. The use of more sophisticated cutting agents which themselves mimic the analgesic effect of cocaine may mean that less pure cocaine has gone to some degree unnoticed. And the increase in the number of users may in itself have driven the available cocaine to be more thinly spread, thus reducing purity levels. (Paragraph 162)
This is the nearest we get to a discussion of the impact of seizures on actual availability but appears to suggest that the impact is marginal at best. The committee suggests that current seizure rates of around 10% are inadequate, but does not suggest what % would be good enough - or suggest how such improved seizure rates might be achieved, or explore possible knock on impacts even if it were (like, for example, displacement to other drugs). There are some rather random examples of enforcement best practice based on the committee's field trips, but it is far from clear if they are seriously suggesting that such models - if rolled out nationally/ internationally - would somehow deliver the desired outcome of actually reducing cocaine use/harms. Crucially they fail to engage with key elements of the analysis:

  1. The unintended negative consequences of supply side enforcement - as spelt out in detail in the submissions of Transform and others, as well as being detailed by the UNODC. Some of these harms are mentioned - such as environmental destruction, but again these are blamed on cocaine users rather than the prohibitionist policy environment the committee is evidently supporting. The role of prohibition in creating opportunities for criminals is mentioned only once, in a Transform quote (below).

  2. The' balloon effect' - that even seemingly 'successful' localised supply side enforcement will only achieve a displacement of illicit activity, not elminate it. Steve is quoted in the report saying that: 'History shows with crystal clarity that an enforcement response cannot get rid of the illicit drug trade…it is a fundamental reality of the economic dynamics of unregulated illegal markets where demand is huge; the opportunity is created and criminal entrepreneurs will always exploit that opportunity. Every dealer or trafficker you arrest, another one immediately fills the void.' Only for this analysis to translate into an ambiguous conclusion that 'Neither supply–side enforcement nor demand reduction can on its own successfully tackle cocaine use.'.

  3. At no point do they get to the heart of the matter to highlight the futility and counter-productive nature of supply side enforcement as evidenced by 40+ years of increasingly expensive failure. No examples are given of countries that have delivered good overall drug policy outcomes (in terms of reduced drug use/harms) from more effective or well resourced supply side enforcement (for the simple reason that there aren't any).
As Transform made clear in our written submission:
10. Decades of supply-side enforcement experience at all scales, from international interdiction efforts to arresting dealers on street corners, demonstrate how its successes can only ever be marginal, temporary and localised. This failure results not from incompetence, flaws in execution, or under-resourcing, but because this approach ignores the economic forces of supply and demand in an unregulated illicit market controlled by criminal profiteers.
We also quoted the committee's previous drugs report:
12. Enforcement also has a Darwinian-style ‘survival of the fittest’ effect – it is the most efficient, ruthless, and violent criminal networks that prosper. So the more energetically prohibition is enforced, the worse the ‘cocaine problem’ becomes. In short, as the 2002 HASC drug inquiry report concluded:
“If there is any single lesson from the experience of the last 30 years, it is that policies based wholly or mainly on enforcement are destined to fail.”
Whilst the committee isn't bound to agree with any of this well established historical critique of supply side enforcement, they should at least have tackled it and made the case in support of the wider supply side enforcement paradigm. Nowhere in the report is there anything even approaching this sort of discussion. The Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit Drugs Report of 2003 demonstrated in detail how global prohibition creates much of the harm associated with the production, supply and use of cocaine and heroin. Like the SciTech classification report, and the 2002 HASC drugs inquiry report, it is not mentioned, nor its central findings engaged with.

The same analytical shortcomings and conceptual misunderstandings of supply side enforcement flow through the analysis of crop eradication in South America and the comments on localised UK police operations. Even where useful insights do occasionally appear in the report , in the form of quotes or references, these are never allowed to impinge on the unrelentingly poor analysis of the recommendations and conclusions. It is particularly noteworthy that nowhere in the report is the detailed submissions from the Transnational Institute (arguably the world's leading NGO authority on the international cocaine market and related policy) or the International Drug Policy Consortium quoted or referenced.

In large parts of the report there is evidence that either the inquiry's remit was far to broad, or (looked at another way) that the inquiry has dealt with a series important issues with a woeful lack of depth and detail. Key debates and areas of policy are dealt with in a few paragraphs - a couple of cursory quotes and facts (when far more substantive literature reviews are needed) followed by a rather limp and unconvincing recommendation. Without going into tedious detail on each of the many areas the report attempts to cover, consider for example:
  • Prevention and media campaigns - much backslapping about the Government's FRANK campaign supported a single piece of Home Office polling research, but nothing on the wider literature critiquing such mass media campaigns (including that of the WHO 1995 cocaine report, which is not referenced despite its commentary on this point being flagged up in Transform's written submission), or any reference to the ACMD Pathways to Problems report which did consider such efforts in the sort of detail the HASC has conspicuously failed to.
  • The role of celebrity drug users: Whilst the committee, you suspect rather dissapointedly, acknowledged that 'There is no evidence that celebrity use has made more people turn to cocaine, indeed our witnesses argued strongly against it,' they were, almost laughably, unable to stop themselves from continuing to makes such an assertion regardless, 'However, the seeming propensity of celebrity users to ‘get away with’ using cocaine does contribute to a general trend of glamorising use, as does the social acceptability and normalisation generated by ‘successful’ people who appear to function normally, often holding down high-flying careers, whilst using cocaine.' . This was another example of fitting the facts around a pre-determined narrative (see this appearance of HASC Chair Keith Vaz on channel four news 8 months before the report is published). Guess which part of the report was given most prominence in the press? To find out put cocaine into Google news search...

  • Treatment - a very cursory analysis followed by a call for more residential rehab - but no comparisons of value for money related to treatment outcomes are provided, that would actually support such a call.
  • Cocaine harms - The discussion of cocaine related health harms lacks any sophistication, seemly built around the preconceived requirement to make it clear that cocaine is not 'safe'. This seems like a classic straw man, as we are not aware that anyone has been saying that cocaine was 'safe' (no drug is), nor do the committee provide any examples of anyone doing so. The concept that there are a range of cocaine products and range of cocaine using behaviours associated with a spectrum of risks (from negligible to extreme) is largely jettisoned in favour of less-than-useful headline grabbing generalisations about 'lethal' cocaine. Public understanding of risk is not helped by this sort of language - its hard to see what it seeks to achieve, and it goes against much of the more nuanced analysis we have seen from the Sci-Tech committee in 2006,and the HASC in 2002. The discussion of cocaine deaths similarly lacks any breakdown, analysis, or caveats - rather defaulting again to the the 'lethal cocaine' narrative, or cocaine the 'dangerous and lethal drug' (presumably in that order) as HASC chair Vaz describes it in the press release.

There was a similarly limited engagement with the debate on legalisation and regulation. This was a marked contrast to the HASC 2002 drug inquiry which recognised the harms of current policy, and called on the UK Government to initiate a debate on alternatives to prohibition, “including the possibility of legalisation and regulation drugs – to solve the global drugs dilemma” (It is worthy of note that one of the members of the 2002 Committee who supported that recommendation was David Cameron). Steve's contribution is key to the section the Enquiry calls 'Decriminalisation':

Several witnesses argued that the supply of and demand for cocaine could not be effectively tackled whilst it remained an illegal drug, but one which for which there was demand. Steve Rolles of Transform Drug Policy told us that:
"When prohibition of something collides with huge demand for it you just create an economic opportunity and illegal criminal entrepreneurs will inevitably exploit the opportunity that it creates."
Lord Mancroft agreed:
"We have controlled drugs in this country but you only have to walk within a mile of this palace to realise that the controls do not work, because anywhere on the streets of London you can buy any of these drugs… The way forward is a range somewhere from the way we control alcohol or indeed the most dangerous object in our everyday lives, the motorcar. If you go outside in the street and step in front of a moving motorcar you will find out how dangerous it is, so what do we do? We do not prohibit it. We license the vehicle, we license the users, we made them pass a test, we make them have insurance so if they damage anybody they have to pay up, we tell them how fast they can use it, on which side of the road. That is control."
The response to this is the most cursory of engagements with the concept of deterrence associated with punitive enforcement, deploying two quotes, one from John Strang:
However, others told us that there was little evidence that decriminalisation would affect demand, and that in fact it would be likely to increase it. For instance, Professor Strang of the National Addiction Centre told us:
"There is no question that the illegality of a substance is a major deterrent to its use…one would have to presume that if legal constraints were taken away the level of use would almost certainly increase."
And one from David Nutt, then ACMD chair:
Professor Nutt also said he would be “surprised if making drugs legal would actually reduce use”. He argued that the, at least partial, success of controlling drugs could be seen in the rise in popularity of ‘legal highs’ being bought over the internet: "People are buying drugs over the Internet which are currently legal, presumably because there is a deterrent to getting illegal drugs…The law must influence people to some extent."
That is all we get - no evidence provided in support of the above Nutt and Strang comments, and no review of the literature on deterrence, no more discussion or analysis. Nothing. This section just ends, somewhat patronisingly, with the comment:
"There is no doubt that the arguments set out by Transform Drug Policy and Lord Mancroft will continue to be debated."

Finally we were deeply disturbed by the recommendation to increase sentences for users, purely on the basis that current sentences were not long enough for prisoners to finish there prison-based treatment programmes. Again - no evidence is given that such programmes are more cost effective than the various non-prison based cocaine treatment options (which have a pretty poor efficacy record anyway - albeit better than prison, and much cheaper).

Related, is the call for harsher penalties for supply, which reeks of populist posturing and is, once again, unsupported by evidence that it would deliver better outcomes. Both of these calls - which would incur significant expense and add to pressures on an already overstretched prison service - sit entirely at odds with the work taking place as we speak by the Sentencing Advisory Panel, (also mentioned in the Transform submission, but ignored in the report) which is seeking to reduce drug related penalties across the board.

We could go on picking holes in the report - but hopefully, if you have read this far, you will have got the point. This is a dreadful report; ill-conceived and poorly executed, a wasted opportunity and a publication for which the committee should be, quite frankly, embarrassed. It entirely fails to do what Select Committees should be doing; scrutinize a policy area shrouded deliberately in obfuscatory myth and taboo. Instead it keeps politicians protected by the glass bubble of pseudo-science and populist fear mongering. The real tragedy is that this process could have been used to expose a failing policy to useful scrutiny and instead has, in large part, wasted taxpayers' time and money on a report that serves primarily to entrench a hugely counterproductive status quo.

It will surely be ignored and quickly forgotten. Indeed our initial glee at finding our Impact Assessment recommendation had been adopted progressively turned to despair as we read through the rest of its shoddy analysis, which rather undermines the one thing about it worth celebrating.

thanks to Steve for help preparing this analysis


Pastorius said...

No doubt this will be tacked onto the standard "drugs are bad" reply people receive from the government.

"Furthermore, the report into cocaine useage in the UK recommended stricter controls and higher sentences for users. With this in mind, the government wishes to piss more money down the drain to appease the right wing media.

Thank you for your concern."

Will21st said...


far worse than the money being pissed away are the human lives being wasted.
The whole drugs trade is deadly,but no more so when it comes to good old charly....

thepoisongarden said...

Thanks for this detailed critique.

The second paragraph of the summary begins 'Cocaine powder use in the UK has risen steeply' and, later, states that there are 'some seizures now containing as little as 5% cocaine'.

Now, I know they define cocaine use in terms of number of people but it is ridiculous to completely ignore dose. Except, of course, that enables them to sidestep the issue of quality control.