Monday, December 12, 2011

An evidence based experiment in the criminalisation of drug use – Czech it out

We were surprised and impressed recently when we came across a little known piece of work that shows how a government, well disposed to using evidence to influence its drug policy, can employ science to make a positive difference.

Earlier this month Steve Rolles and Danny Kushlick attended an event at the House of Lords. One of the presentations was by Pavel Bem, a conservative MP in the Czech Parliament.  He presented the results of an impact analysis that effectively paved the way for the contemporary Czech decriminalisation of drug possession in 2002.  The initiative was, in effect, a perfect experiment:

This is the brief history:
  • 1993    Governmental Drug Commission
  • 1993    1st National Drug Strategy - drugs decrminalised for persoanl possession
  • 1998    Criminal Law penalizing possession brought in
  • 1999    Impact Analysis Project (PAD) of the New Drugs Legislation (GDC)
  • 2002    PAD outcomes prove negative impacts
  • 2002-10 New National Drug Strategy and New Penal Code - decriminalises possession
A period of decriminalisation of possession was briefly interrupted by recriminalisation.  Following an impact analysis of the recriminalisation, showing negative outcomes, drugs were decriminalised again.

The following is taken from the TNI’s excellent Drug LawReform in Latin America Website:
The first major post-communist reform of Czech drug laws was completed as early as 1990. Among other legislative changes that were seen as returns to democratic and humanistic values, capital punishment and punishment for simple possession of illegal drugs were abolished.

However, in 1997 a proposal was submitted to the Czech parliament that would re-introduce criminal penalties for drug users for possession of any amount of illegal drugs. The government subsequently submitted its own more modest proposal introducing criminalization of possession, but only for amounts that were "bigger than small", which was approved by parliament in April 1998.

The law was subsequently vetoed by Vaclav Havel, then president of the Czech Republic. Then, the parliament overturned the president's veto and the amended law went into effect on January 1, 1999. Following these turbulent events, the National Drug Commission proposed that the government evaluate the impact of the new amendments by means of funding a scientific study.

The researchers were asked to address five hypotheses that the Czech government wanted to have tested. The hypotheses were: "After the introduction of the penalty for possession of illegal drugs, (1) availability of illegal drugs will decrease; (2) number of (prevalence of) current drug users will decrease; or at least (3) the incidence of new users will decrease; (4) there will be no increase in the negative health consequences related to illegal drugs; and (5) social costs will not increase."

The study, "An Impact Analysis Project of the New Drug Legislation in the Czech Republic" (October 2001), concluded that the implementation of a penalty for possession of illicit drugs for personal use did not meet any of the tested objectives and was loss-making from an economic point of view.

Download the summary document by clicking on the image below:

The importance of this social experiment cannot be underestimated.  It shows that if government is willing to operate according to evidence then the policy change can be made in accordance with it.

Whilst this was not a full impact assessment as we understand it, (for instance, it didn’t explore the possibility of legal regulation) it is important to know that this kind of work is possible to conduct and that if done well, it can affect policy decisions.

Impact Assessment can be conducted at all levels of government, from city to transnational.  We call on policy makers at every level to ensure cost-effectiveness of expenditure and demonstrate that key impacts are being achieved.  And we ask drug policy activists to pressure them to do so.

For more on Impact Assessment: