Despite hundreds of millions of pounds spent each year on UK drug enforcement activity, the commissioners argue there is “remarkably little evidence of its effectiveness”.
Drug markets, they conclude, are “extremely resilient” and all the criminal justice activity has had “little street-level impact”.
Indeed they go further, warning that law enforcement efforts can have a significant negative impact.
…”Law enforcement efforts have had little adverse effect on the availability of illicit drugs in the UK” say the commissioners Seizures of Class A drugs have more than doubled in a decade but average street prices, they claim, have fallen consistently for heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis.
“The drug networks are highly fluid, adapting effectively to law enforcement interventions”, says the report. If supplies are hit for a time they simply reduce the purity level of their product increasing their profit margins.
It is in many ways a bleak assessment of the government’s entire approach to the drugs problem. Not only do they question the ineffectiveness of police activity but there is also criticism of that other key plank of the official drug strategy – treatment.
They suggest the programme suffers from high attrition rates, low completion rates, inconsistent quality and availability of services.
We’ve reached the same conclusion here in the US again and again and again, yet we continue to pursue the same strategies that have been proven to fail. Our interview guest Bernd Debusmann brought up the famous Einstein quote: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Buried deep in the comments was this gem from Julian Critchley, former Director of the UK Anti-Drug Co-ordination Unit in Cabinet Office – so it’s claimed, you can’t know for certain if a comment is authentic. Seems to me it was cut-n-pasted from elsewhere, because the quotation marks and apostrophes were all messed up.
However, during my time in the Unit, as I saw more and more evidence of “what works”, to quote New Labour’s mantra of the time, it became apparent to me that the available evidence pointed very clearly to the fact that enforcement and supply-side interventions were largely pointless. They have no significant, lasting impact on the availability, affordability or use of drugs. In the Spending Review we undertook, we did successfully manage to re-allocate resources towards treatment programmes, but even then I had misgivings about the effectiveness of those programmes. Many hear the word “treatment” and imagine medical intervention or “cures”, yet many of these programmes were often supported largely by anecdotal evidence of success, and the more successful interventions were simply too expensive to use widely, given other pressures on health budgets.
It seems apparent to me that wishing drug use away is folly. The only sensible cause of action is to minimise the damage caused to society by individuals’ drugs choices. What harms society is the illegality of drugs and all the costs associated with that. There is no doubt at all that the benefits to society of the fall in crime as a result of legalisation would be dramatic. The argument always put forward against this is that there would be a commensurate increase in drug use as a result of legalisation. This, it seems to me, is a bogus point : tobacco is a legal drug, whose use is declining, and precisely because it is legal, its users are far more amenable to Government control, education programmes and taxation than they would be, were it illegal. Studies suggest that the market is already almost saturated, and anyone who wishes to purchase the drug of their choice, anywhere in the UK, can already do so. The idea that many people are holding back solely because of a law which they know is already unenforceable is simply ridiculous.
Ultimately, people will make choices which harm themselves, whether that involve their diet, smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, sexual activity or pursuit of extreme sports, for that matter. The Government in all these instances rightly takes the line that if these activities are to be pursued, society will ensure that those who pursue them : have access to accurate information about the risks; can access assistance to change their harmful habits should they so wish; are protected by legal standards regime; are taxed accordingly; and – crucially – do not harm other people. Only in the field of drugs does the Government take a different line, and as a direct result, society suffers truly enormous consequences in terms of crime, both petty and organised, and harm to individuals who are criminalised and unprotected in the pursuit of their drug.
I think what was truly depressing about my time in [UK Anti-Drug Co-ordination Unit] was that the overwhelming majority of professionals I met, including those from the police, the health service, government and voluntary sectors held the same view : the illegality of drugs causes far more problems for society and the individual than it solves. Yet publicly, all those intelligent, knowledgeable people were forced to repeat the nonsensical mantra that the Government would be “tough on drugs”, even though they all knew that the Government’s policy was actually causing harm. I recall a conversation I had with a No 10 policy advisor about a series of Whitehall-wide announcements in which we were to emphasise the shift of resources to treatment and highlighting successes in prevention and education. She asked me whether we couldn’t arrange for “a drugs bust in Brighton” at the same time, or “a boat speeding down the Thames to catch smugglers?”. For that advisor, what worked mattered considerably less than what would play well in the Daily Mail. The tragedy of our drugs policy is that it is dictated by tabloid irrationality, and not by reference to evidence.