Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Kate Francis (DP109)

I am an individual with no current professional links to drug policy. However, I developed a keen interest in and concern about this subject during my work in the area of community safety policy between 2001 and 2006.

It became clear to me then that “drug-related crime” was a major issue for policy makers and law enforcers, yet finding ways of effectively dealing with it was significantly hampered by the failure of crime analysis and statistics to make a distinction between crime caused directly by the consumption of drugs (particularly alcohol related violence) and crime caused by their prohibition (particularly drug dealing and possession itself and some forms of acquisitive crime).

It became obvious to me that no real progress could be made in tackling “drug-related crime” without this distinction being acknowledged. This was particularly worrying since there was overwhelming evidence to show that prohibition had failed in its primary objective of limiting the consumption of controlled substances. Rationally it seemed to me that some assessment of better forms of control, that would not bring with them the unintended consequences associated with a massive, worldwide black market, should be undertaken.

It was equally obvious that, in spite of this, drug policy review was a political “no go” area, with major parties and successive governments setting themselves resolutely against allowing even a rational debate of how successfully that policy had been and whether better options for drug control existed.

Since leaving full time employment I have there retained a keen interest in this subject.

I do not have expert knowledge in this field, but have presented this short evidence as a logical analysis of the issues being examined in this review which I hope will be helpful.

1. The extent to which the Government’s 2010 drug strategy is a “fiscally responsible policy with strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights” in line with the recent recommendation by the Global Commission on Drug Policy

The “drug strategy” to which this test should be applied must be the strategy in its entirety, as determined by the 1970 Misuse of Drugs Act. It cannot be limited to the 2010 strategy which has only taken the consequences of the 1971 Act’s failure (“controlled” drugs are now far more widely available now than before they were banned) as its starting point and then set out measures aimed at mitigating, insofar as that is possible, some of the social and economic damage created by that failure.

2. The criteria used by the Government to measure the efficacy of its drug policies

There appears to have been no attempt has been made to measure the efficacy of the totality of the government’s drugs policy, as set out in the previous answer. Indeed, there appears to be a determination not to do so. In rejecting recent calls for an impact assessment into drugs policy it said

The Coalition Government has no intention of adopting either a more or a less restrictive approach overall to the production, supply and possession of currently controlled drugs and it therefore does not support(the) call for an impact assessment comparing the costs and benefits of different legislative options for domestic drug policy. 1

Clearly the efficacy of any one policy can only be properly assessed in comparison with viable alternatives, yet the government had apparently at a very early stage determined to continue within the legislative framework of the 1971 Act on the basis of no objective evaluation and in spite of the fact that it seemed aware of the potential societal and economic costs when it referred later to:

The adverse impact that the use of illegal drugs has on our society, not least in the form of drug-related crime...

3. The independence and quality of expert advice which is being given to the government

I cannot comment in detail on the quality and independence of advice being given. However, the ACMD was established to give expert advice to the Secretary of State, and members were appointed on the basis of expertise in specific relevant fields. It therefore it might be assumed that the quality and independence of the advice was of an acceptable standard.

It is deeply regrettable therefore that ministers have on several occasions failed to take that advice on grounds that appeared to have no rational basis.

4. Whether drug-related policing and expenditure is likely to decrease in line with police budgets and what impact this may have

I have no expert knowledge of this, but given the current economic situation the possibility seems highly likely. This must be seen, however, in the context of the fact that police action has been successful in intercepting only a small fraction of illegal drug supply. A comprehensive review of drug policy could help to ensure both a more effective form of control and a far better use of increasingly scarce policing resources.

5. The cost effectiveness of different policies to reduce drug usage

I have no expert knowledge of this, but there would seem to be a strong case for arguing that seeking to reduce drug use through the imposition a non workable “ban” is unlikely to be the most cost effective approach given that is has not only failed in its primary objective but also caused socially and economically damaging secondary effects.

6. The extent to which public health considerations should play a leading role in developing drugs policy

Public health and harm reduction should be the primary driver of drug policy. This would be more effectively achieved with a transfer to responsibility for drug policy to the Department of Health.

7. The relationship between drug and alcohol abuse

I have no expert knowledge of this, but I would note that this question can only meaningfully answered if it is understood that:

(a) alcohol is a drug and only excluded from the generic term because it is legal, and

(b) The relationship can be difficult to establish because different language is applied to drug and alcohol use. For example, there is a widespread understanding that alcohol (one of the most dangerous drugs) can be taken responsibly as well as misused/abused. This is not normally the case for the wide range of substances falling within the category of illegal drugs where the terms “use” and “abuse” are often used interchangeably.

8. The comparative harm and cost of legal and illegal drugs

I have no detailed information on this However I hope the Committee will acknowledge that much of the harm “caused” by illegal drugs is in fact caused by prohibition, not consumption of the drug itself. Equally there is evidence to support the view that the drug most likely to cause harm as a direct result of its consumption is alcohol.

9. The impact of the transfer of functions of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse to Public Health England and how this will affect the provision of treatment

No comment.

10. The availability of “legal highs” and the challenges associated with adapting the legal framework to deal with new substances

Currently, in spite of the fact that alcohol and tobacco are legally controlled, a strong misconception persists that the only form of control possible for other drugs is “prohibition”. Consequently whenever a new “legal high” emerges the only “solution” offered is to ban it.

An alternative would be for these substances to remain legal but brought within a tighter regulatory framework appropriate to their assessed potential harm.

11. The links between drugs, organised crime and terrorism

The Committee will have received a wealth of detailed evidence demonstrating that there is more than a link, there is a causal connection between drug prohibition, organised crime terrorism and corruption.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of this was the reconstitution in 1997 of the UN International Drug Control Programme into a new agency (UN Office on Drugs and Crime) covering the additional issues as international terrorism and government corruption. In other words the new body was tasked with not only “winning the war on drugs” but also dealing with the disastrous consequences of the impossibility of that ever being achieved.

12. Whether the UK is supporting its global partners effectively and what changes may occur with the introduction of the national crime agency

In a very narrow sense the UK is supporting its drug-consuming partners in attempting to stamp out the drug trade through prohibition backed by the force of law. This has had a persistently disastrous effect on producer/partner countries such as Mexico. A balanced policy of support would rest primarily on pressing for evidence-based assessment within the UN of the most effective way to control the supply and use of currently prohibited drugs worldwide.

13. Whether detailed consideration ought to be given to alternative ways of tackling the drugs dilemma, as recommended by the Select Committee in 2002 (The Government’s Drugs Policy: Is It Working?, HC 318, 2001–02) and the Justice Committee’s 2010 Report on justice reinvestment (Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment, HC 94, 2009–10)

Very definitely. The Committee’s willingness to ask this question is extremely encouraging. An open, evidence-driven debate on the best way to control and minimise drug use and harm is long overdue. It is clear though that the consideration of alternatives is something that successive governments have dismissed out of hand. The reasons for this are unclear but could include the following:

(a)The term “illegal” is often defined in relation to drugs in a way that is synonymous with “dangerous”. This makes it particularly difficult to objectively assess the specific characteristics and potential harm of individual substances. This tendency was particularly evident in the irrational dismissal by the then government of the valuable first attempt by the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs to create a “matrix of harm”.

(b)There has been a tendency, oddly given that alcohol and tobacco are both legal and controlled, for successive governments to claim that prohibition is the only possible form of control for currently illegal drugs. A simplistic binary choice is then presented. “Controlled/illegal or uncontrolled/legal”. What, is then claimed, follows from this is that however flawed prohibition might be it is not just the “best worst” but the only option. This fallacy must be vigorously challenged.

(c)The common proposal that cannabis would be the best candidate for legalisation should it be introduced implies that legalisation is only appropriate for the least harmful substances. In fact there are potentially more effective means of legally controlling all substances, even the most harmful. (This has been set out in detail by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation in its publication: “After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation”).

(d)Some of the language used by supporters of reform, even those putting forward the most intellectually sound arguments has sometimes been unwittingly unhelpful. The slogan for example “The war on drugs has failed” whilst being entirely correct, can offer the opportunity to misrepresent the message as being that (evil) drugs had “won”, and that “legalisation”—wrongly equated to “liberalisation”—would be the consequence of that defeat. In fact virtually all supporters of reassessment want, just as the government does, effective control of drug supply and use. Their objective is finding the best way of achieving that. The question should not therefore be “Should drugs be legalised?” but “How do we best control the supply and use of all potentially harmful substances used for recreational purposes?”

January 2012

1 Letter to TDPF 26 August 2010.

Prepared 8th December 2012