Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (DP133)

Executive Summary

1. There is no doubt that harm is caused by the use of drugs, including alcohol. The prohibition of alcohol in the USA failed because of the significant harm caused through the resultant increase in crime. There is no evidence that the prohibition of other drugs has lessened the demand for them, but there has certainly been an increase in crime as a result. The writers consider that the harms caused by this prohibition may well outweigh those caused by drug misuse and suggest that at the very least there should be an objective study of this. If the evidence is forthcoming to support their belief, then the government should act accordingly.


2. This evidence is submitted by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP, http://www.leap.cc), a US based international organisation of more than 3,000 law enforcement professionals (police officers; prison and probation officers; judges and prosecutors). It addresses the recent recommendation by the Global Commission on Drug Policy and whether detailed consideration ought to be given to alternative ways of tackling the drugs dilemma.

3. We have been in the frontline in a multi-trillion dollar, international effort to combat a subset of those drugs—those that are currently illegal. We have rarely been denied any legal policy or enforcement tool, however expensive or constitutionally questionable, in our quest to eradicate those drugs and to keep pace with the well-armed dealers who are empowered by their untaxed sale.

4. And as law enforcement professionals we can say with confidence that this approach has been, at best, a total failure on its own terms. It has consistently failed to meet a single one of its goals, either as spelled out by the United Nations or by any participating country. At worst, it has actually increased the death, disease, crime and addiction it was meant to combat.

5. We look askance at the fear-based movement of mass hysteria and irrationality that led to Alcohol Prohibition in the USA. We know that this drug has potential for abuse and addiction. Yet we eventually separated the dangers of drug use from the dangers inherent in the policy and legal environment in which they are produced, supplied and consumed.

6. Today, we should bring the scientific method to bear on the contemporary drug prohibition, using evidence-based, objective inquiry (tools such as cost benefit analysis and Impact Assessments) to evaluate the impact of the current policy of prohibition policy, and compare it to alternatives including legal regulated markets.

7. A comprehensive review, such as the review the Committee is conducting, is a first, long overdue step. It is time to bring rationality to the issue of drug policy.

Current Policy

8. The criminalisation approach to drug control has created many problems—and hasn’t solved any. For five decades, governments have endeavoured to create a “drug-free world” by banning drugs and severely penalizing those who use, cultivate and sell them.

9. Yet despite immense and ever-increasing resources devoted to harsh enforcement and punishment, drug use and abuse has not been appreciably reduced. Instead of becoming harder to obtain, under prohibition drugs are cheaper and more available than ever before. The consequences have been devastating.

10. For example, in the US’s most recent youth drug use survey, high school students reported that they are finding easier access to illegal marijuana and having a harder time getting their hands on legal and age-regulated tobacco and alcohol.

11. An unregulated market has caused drugs to be much more dangerous and cause more deaths by overdose. Heroin users in the US are four times more likely to die of an overdose today than they were in 1979.1

12. But beyond this striking failure to reduce use and abuse, the drug war’s punitive, enforcement-based approach has led to a series of other disastrous unintended consequences.

13. It is well known that when the US banned alcohol in the 1920s and 30s, the ongoing demand for beer, wine and liquor created a lucrative opportunity for organised crime networks to supply Americans with the substances they desired, and that these networks violently battled it out for control of the illegal market. Today, the prohibition of other drugs has created a similar effect, although the current violence is far greater in intensity. A 2010 comprehensive review of studies examining drug law enforcement expenditures and levels of drug market violence concluded that law enforcement efforts are unlikely to reduce drug market violence, and drug law enforcement practices aimed to disrupt drug markets may have the unintentional effect of increasing levels of drug market violence.2

14. In the last five years alone, for example, more than 50,000 people have been killed in drug wars in Mexico.3 This violence is not confined to Mexico. There have been gun battles on American soil between police and criminals dressed as police officers. If drugs were legally controlled and regulated rather than banned, there would be no incentive for organized criminals to kill each other, police officers and innocent bystanders in the effort to protect their share of the illegal drug business—because no such business would exist.

15. Mexico has suffered because it adjoins the USA, does not have a tradition of effective policing and is poorer than its northern neighbour. If we do not learn from the lessons of North and Central America we run the risk of similar developments in the Balkans, and other states of eastern Europe, even perhaps Hungary.

16. Ending prohibition would increase public safety in other ways as well. If criminal justice systems weren’t distracted from having to arrest, prosecute and punish so many people for drugs, more resources would be available for preventing and solving crimes like murder, rape, robbery and arson. If police in the U.S., for example, weren’t busy arresting more than 1.6 million people a year for drugs, they’d have more time to address the nearly four out of 10 murders, six out of 10 rapes and nine out of 10 burglaries that currently go unsolved.

17. In addition the lucrative criminal market created by prohibition also provides perverse incentives that corrupt far too many officers of the law. Across the globe, there are countless examples of police officers, police chiefs, military personnel and even national drug czars on the payroll of drug-related organised crime. When law enforcers in Mexico, for example, are sent unmarked envelopes enclosing pictures of their families with the phrase “plata o plomo” (silver or lead) written on the back, it is not hard to imagine why so many choose the money over the bullet and end up succumbing to the cartels’ demands.

18. This widespread corruption, as well as the fact that the enforcement of drug laws seems to fall disproportionately on marginalised communities like the poor and people of colour, has created widespread distrust between police and those communities who are supposed to be able to view them as protectors, not as enemies. We believe that replacing prohibition with effective regulation—when police officers are no longer charged with knocking down doors and patting down people on the street in the futile effort to stamp out drugs—will help restore the honourable role of law enforcement amongst key target populations.

Critically Examining the Evidence

19. We must disentangle our emotions about drugs from our process of examining the evidence. The suggestion of a regulated and controlled distribution model for drugs may sound radical and threatening to some. But the truly radical position is to ignore all the evidence showing the failure of the current policies and the potential of new policies.

20. In 2001, Portugal changed its drug laws to shift efforts from enforcement to public health and safety, decriminalising use and possession of illegal drugs for personal use. A key goal of this change was to reduce social stigma and facilitate access to drug treatment and harm reduction services—which also received substantial new investment. In the years since reform has passed, the number of people determined by physicians to have died due to drug use has decreased to much lower levels.4 Compare this with the US, where overdose rates continue to rise despite ever-increasing enforcement and sentences.

21. Opponents of moves towards regulated drug markets often dismiss such evidence with fear that reforming drug laws to take a public-health approach would “send the wrong message” that drug use is okay, thus causing children (and perhaps adults) to become drug addicts. The Portugal experience suggests the fears of drug law reform are misplaced; for those aged 15–24, rates of recent and current drug use declined. While the data shows a moderate rise in short-term, experimental cannabis use for school students around the time of reform, cannabis use subsequently declined. For the general population and for all substances, lifetime-reported use similarly reflected a growth in predominantly short-term experimental use and a simultaneous increase in discontinuation of drug use (the proportion of the population that has tried a drug but opted not to in recent years). Overall, there was a net benefit to the Portuguese community which reinforces our experience: an honest approach which encourages those who need treatment to seek it results in a safer society making better decisions about drugs.

22. One of the most heartbreaking consequences of illegal drug abuse are HIV-and AIDS-related deaths linked to injection of drugs. A serious HIV problem in Switzerland throughout the 1980s was the prime motivating factor which led Switzerland to revisit its narcotic drug policy in the early 1990s.5 After consulting with health experts and others, the Federal Council of Switzerland endorsed a new idea based on the idea of four pillars: prevention of drug use, therapy for drug dependence, harm reduction, and law enforcement. As part of this shift, the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health developed an experiment to treat heroin addicts with prescribed pharmaceutical heroin, which began in 1994. In addition, the Swiss authorized methadone programmes, safe injection rooms, and needle exchange programmes across the country, including in prisons. Each programme was set up to be carefully evaluated so that results could be examined in detail and used to decide future policy.

23. Swiss research conducted for six years showed that retention in treatment was high. The treatment programme dramatically reduced the use of dangerous and illicit street heroin (the percentage of clients using dropped from 81% to 18% after 18 months in the programme).6 Crime was also dramatically reduced; after 18 months, the number of clients involved in crimes like dealing and shoplifting dropped from 70% to 10%. The clients’ unemployment rates dropped from 44% to 22%, and they showed significant improvements in health measures including body mass index, diet and nutrition. All of this was done with a net savings to the Swiss economy.

24. And again, the fears that providing heroin would cause a flood of new users were unfounded. In fact, the opposite occurred; the expansion of treatment programmes including heroin-assisted treatment led to dramatic reductions in the apparent attractiveness of heroin use.7 We note that the committee called for an expansion of such programs in the UK in 2002—but that this has yet to occur, despite the growing evidence base from Switzerland and elsewhere in support of them.

25. The US does have one success story for reducing the use of a dangerous drug: tobacco. Between 1965 and 2005, the number of tobacco users has declined by roughly 50%.8 This was achieved through aggressive education, prevention and treatment programmes combined with more effective regulation (most prominently, bans on smoking in public spaces); not one person was arrested or incarcerated for smoking cigarettes. The UK is moving in the same direction.

A New Approach

26. At this point we must consider a more rational alternative to our current failed policy. As the most practical and humane approach we endorse the ending of blanket drug prohibitions (a process of legalisation) leading to the development of appropriately controlled and regulated drug markets guided by evidence of effectiveness, public health and human rights principles.

27. The first step towards a post-prohibition world would be to develop regulatory models for the production, sale and use of drugs, along with the creation of a government regulatory agency to enforce these regulations. LEAP believes that government has a public health obligation to ascertain the risks associated with the use of each drug and clearly communicate that information to the public, including via appropriate labelling on drug products themselves. In addition, there is an obligation to ensure these drugs are of known strength and purity. Regulations must also be set for how drugs would be packaged and sold, likely banning the use of advertising and instituting a system of taxes and fines. These funds could be used to offset the administrative costs of the legalization system, as well as funnelled into drug treatment facilities for those who find themselves in need of help.

28. For drug users, regulations would undoubtedly include appropriate age restrictions, just as there are age restrictions on alcohol and tobacco. The legalisation of drug use would not exempt those who participate in illegal activities while under the influence of drugs from being held responsible for their crimes. Driving while impaired, providing drugs to a minor, assault, abuse or property damage would certainly still be punishable by law. The end of drug prohibition would lead directly to a sharp decline in crime but law enforcement would still play a vital role in ensuring that the drug industry adhered to the standards imposed by federal regulations. Ultimately, the legalised control and regulation of drugs would reduce police costs currently squandered on upholding drug prohibition.

The Turning Point

29. Contrary to the outdated and inaccurate belief that only extremists question the current war on drugs, a great number of world leaders and experts including The Global Commission on Drug Policy are calling for a new approach. Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon and Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos have both suggested that legalising marijuana could help stop the international violence associated with drug trafficking. And the public in the US agrees; a poll released in October 2011 showed that a record-high 50% of Americans favour legalizing marijuana use.9


30. What is the real “global drugs dilemma”? Essentially, the dilemma is the disconnect between the instinctive belief that prohibition is the appropriate tool to control drugs and the reality that the prohibition will surely fail, paradoxically gifting full control to gangs and cartels with devastating consequences across the globe. There is no doubt that drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, cause harm. So does prohibition. Which is the greater harm?

31. Of course evidence is the key, but political leadership is also necessary. Now that ever more expert and public opinion is supporting a change in policy, the committee has a unique opportunity to call on the Government to reconsider its approach—and meaningfully evaluate both failings of contemporary punitive prohibitions, and the potential of alternative approaches involving legally regulated rather than criminal controlled drug markets.

Submitted on Behalf of LEAP by

Francis Wilkinson, former Chief Constable of Gwent
Neill Franklin, retired Police Major, Maryland, USA
Paul Whitehouse, former Chief Constable of Sussex
Rowan Bosworth-Davies, retired Detective, Company Fraud Dept, New Scotland Yard

January 2011

1 Robinson, Matthew B, and Renee G Scherlen. Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: a Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Albany: State University of New York, 2007. 140. Print.

2 Effect of Drug Law Enforcement on Drug-Related Violence: Evidence from a Scientific Review. International Centre for Science in Drug Policy. 2010.

3 Forsyth, Jim. “U.S. should legalize drugs, says former Mexican president Vicente Fox. “Reuters.com. 03 May 2011. Web. 04 May 2011.

4 Hughes, Caitlin, and Alex Stevens. “A Resounding Success or a Disastrous Failure: Re-examining the Interpretation of Evidence on the Portuguese Decriminalisation of Illicit Drugs.” Drug and Alcohol Review 31 (2012): 101–13. Print.

5 Csete, Joanne. From the Mountaintops: What the World Can Learn from Drug Policy Change in Switzerland. Publication. New York: Open Society Foundations, 2010.

6 Hallam, Christopher. Heroin Assisted Treatment: The State of Play. London: International Drug Policy Consortium, 2010.

7 Ibid.

8 “Cigarette Smoking Among Adults—United States, 2006.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 27 Oct. 2011.

9 Newport, Frank. “Record-High 50% of Americans Favor Legalizing Marijuana Use.” Gallup.Com - Daily News, Polls, Public Opinion on Government, Politics, Economics, Management. Gallup, 17 Oct. 2011. Web. 07 Jan. 2012.

Prepared 8th December 2012