Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by International Drug Policy Consortium (DP073)

IDPC greatly welcomes the decision of the Committee to look at this subject. Governments and analysts worldwide are all aware of the limited impact of current government action on the control and management of psychoactive drugs, and the need to find a more effective and humane mix of policies and programmes. However, due to the complexity and political sensitivity of the subject matter, governments are tending to avoid the close analysis of policy options, leading to a certain inertia. If current policies were successful, this would be less of a problem, but there is an urgent need to bring an end to the unjust and ineffective aspects of state activity, and to expand and improve the implementation of proven interventions. Independent commentators such as the HASC have the opportunity to stimulate policy improvements that would not otherwise be prioritised by the government.

You will be receiving a wealth of detailed responses on areas of potential reform such as the framing of drug laws, police enforcement strategies, sentencing practices, prison management, drug prevention, treatment, and harm reduction. IDPC has produced policy advice on all of these issues—all of our materials are available on our website: www.idpc.net (we particularly draw your attention to our comprehensive Drug Policy Guide, which is currently being updated and will be reissued during the period of your inquiry). This submission, however, will concentrate on the high level political challenge facing the UK Government (and indeed, all Western democratic governments)—to openly acknowledge that the historic attempts to eradicate or significantly reduce the scale of illegal drug markets can never succeed, and that the responsible role of governments is to manage these markets in a way that minimises the associated health and social harms.

We make this proposal not from some sense of defeatism, or from being casual about the harms that can arise from drug use and drug markets. But the clear conclusion from 50 years of experience is that the two main hypotheses behind punishment based drug policies have been disproved:

That state authorities could—through determined use of intelligence, diplomatic, military, customs and law enforcement resources—choke off the production, distribution and retail sale of all psychoactive substances deemed inappropriate for non-medical uses. The reality of 21st century drug markets is that they are so diverse—in terms of the range of substances available for use, the methods and locations of production, and the routes and mechanisms for distribution—and the profits to be made so attractive, that the best possible supply reduction outcomes involve the containment of the scale of the market, or the disruption of small areas of the market.

That the attempt to deter potential users from becoming involved in drug markets through strong laws, widespread arrest, and harsh punishments, has not worked, and has been an expensive way of increasing the negative health and social consequences of drug use. Governments around the world have put great faith in repressive strategies, but it is now clear that, however strong the criminal justice response, it has little impact on overall levels of drug use—the US authorities, at the peak of their deterrence based policy in 2007, conducted almost two million drug law arrests, and imprisoned over half a million users, but their drug use prevalence remained amongst the highest in the world.

The UK Government has been aware of these realities for some time—research and internal reviews have for many years presented this advice to Ministers, most notably with the Prime Minister’s strategy unit report in 2002—and to some extent the implications have been incorporated into strategies and programmes. For example, while we still arrest as many people as ever for drug possession, very few are imprisoned; national and international law enforcement strategies are more focused on achieving specific operational objectives, rather than some abstract idea of stopping the entire flow of drugs; and much of the policy and resource attention in recent years has focused on the expansion and improvement of health and treatment programmes for drug users.

But these areas of budget setting and operational programming continue to be conducted within the straitjacket of government policy and presentation, which still takes a traditional rhetorical approach—that government will fight drug markets and use in all its forms, and will protect citizens through the prohibition and suppression of these activities. To maintain that approach, the UK Government continues to implement ineffective programmes that support that narrative, and resists the implementation of crucial activities that acknowledge the continuation of drug markets and use. The reality is that we are managing a market that is constantly evolving, but will not significantly diminish in scale in the foreseeable future.

So this is our primary recommendation to the Committee—to issue a clear and unequivocal call to the Government to be more honest with the electorate about drug policy—that we, as a society, cannot eradicate drug markets, so we must be comfortable with finding ways of managing them to best protect security, health and social wellbeing.

Key to this change of focus is a shift in the criteria used to judge the success of drug policy, as you indicate in your call for evidence. Government and law enforcement spokespeople continue to present drug seizures, arrests, and the strengthening of laws and punishments as evidence of success, when they know beyond doubt that these “process” achievements have little impact on the “outcomes” of improved security, health, and social wellbeing. The headline objectives of drug policy should therefore be framed under these incomes—for example, reductions in drug related crime and the power of drug dealing organisations; the reduction of drug related health problems such as HIV, Hepatitis and overdoses; and the successful recovery of those suffering from drug dependence. The Government should openly state that these are their drug policy objectives, and commit to pursuing policies and programmes that have the best evidence and prospects to achieve them.

The HASC should call on the Government to make a clear statement clarifying these objectives, and describing what the government is doing to pursue them. As we have mentioned above, much of what the government currently does recognises the need to move away from a reliance on repression and deterrence, but there are some areas of policy where a truly objective and outcome based approach would necessitate significant reforms:

Drug Laws. The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act has many clear deficiencies that, in the normal process of legislative refinement, would be addressed through technical review and amendment. In addition, the diversification of new drugs and markets mean a new approach to classification is required. The government needs to approach these challenges responsibly, rather than simply using the Act as a symbol of “toughness” or to “send a message”.

Possession Arrests. It is now clear that arresting and punishing drug users do not deter use, and has no impact on overall levels of prevalence. This reality has been recognised in recent years in the move away from imprisonment as a sanction, but over a hundred thousand users are still arrested each year, at great expense and with no social benefit. These arrests are also disproportionately targeted at young, poor and ethnic minority users. The Government should be brave enough to acknowledge that criminal punishments for possession, where no other offence is committed, should be discontinued.

Law Enforcement Strategies. Traditional drug law enforcement strategies attempt to tackle all forms of drug distribution. If we accept that some form of market will continue, law enforcement strategists need to objectively analyse markets, and develop tactics that undermine the most harmful forms of distribution (ie those involving violence or community disruption), while tolerating markets that cause none of those problems.

Harm reduction. We have been very successful in the UK in containing HIV amongst injecting drug users, largely through the early and widespread implementation of harm reduction strategies. There is now a need to extend these programmes further to tackle the worrying rates of overdoses and hepatitis amongst drug users. The Government has, however, been resistant to elements of harm reduction that openly accept and work with continuing drug use, such as consumption rooms. The symbolism of fighting drugs should not be allowed to inhibit the delivery of effective public health services.

Foreign policy. Despite significant modification and modernisation of our own domestic policies and programmes, the UK Government continues to hold a position in international debates that resists even the slightest amendment to the international control system (for example, the current reasonable request from the Bolivian Government to enter a reservation on the coca leaf), through some abstract notion of “protecting the integrity of the Conventions”. In reality, this 50 year old system is in need of careful modernisation if it is going to be fit for purpose for the challenges of the 21st century. Countries like the UK, with extensive research evidence and professional experience, should be leading the international process of reform and modernisation, rather than pretending that a system designed in very different times is somehow immutable.

Most of these proposals do not involve any great structural reform or investment (indeed, they would produce a significant saving to the taxpayer), but they do require an amount of political bravery, and a willingness to be honest with the electorate. The public is increasingly aware of the need for reform, so the political risk of taking a more rational and open approach is decreasing. Western governments will all need to adjust and diversify their policies for management of psychoactive drug markets and use in the coming years—it is much preferable that these reforms are carried out through open and honest debate between policy makers, professionals and the public, rather than continuing to muddle through, with policy rhetoric disconnected from reality on the ground.

January 2012

Prepared 8th December 2012