Feature: The Downing Street Drug Memo 7/8/05

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Editor's Note: This article was written before Thursday's terrorist attacks in London took place. We decided to run it this week rather than delay its publication because the story broke this week, in support of the work of our British colleagues, and because drug prohibition has bearing on global security. DRCNet extends our condolences to friends and families of the victims, and our wishes to all Britons for strength during this time.

A study on Britain's drug strategy commissioned two years ago for Prime Minister Tony Blair and suppressed up until last week concluded bluntly that British drug prohibition has failed. The government released part of the report last Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, and other London newspapers, but withheld the section of the report dealing with efforts to defeat drug trafficking, where the Cabinet Office of Strategy team led by former BBC director general Lord Birt reached its most politically explosive conclusions.

But somebody leaked the still-suppressed section of the report to the Guardian Sunday, which promptly posted it online for all to see. The report's findings, and the Blair government's futile attempts to squelch them, are creating political waves in Britain despite London's fond wishes that the whole thing would disappear in the bright glare of the media focus on the Live 8 concert and the G8 summit taking place in Scotland.

With its pointed comments that British drug dealers have higher profit margins than Gucci, Luis Vuitton, and other luxury goods purveyors and its disconcerting revelation that police would have to intercept up to 80% of drugs entering Britain to affect dealers' profit margin (seizure rates are 20% at best, the report noted), it is little wonder the Blair government didn't want the report to ever see the light of day. Its grim conclusion that even if prohibitionist measures succeeded in driving up prices, the victory would be phyrric because problem drug users would commit more crimes to obtain their drugs, only added to the government's desire to bury the report. Lord Birt and his study group presented the Blair government with the facts about the efficacy of drug prohibition, and Whitehall averted its eyes.

Opposition politicians and drug reform advocates pounced. "What this report shows and what the government is too paranoid to admit is that the 'war on drugs' is a disaster," said Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten in a statement responding to stories in the Guardian, the Observer, and other newspapers. "We need an evidence-led debate about the way forward but if they withhold the evidence we can't have the debate."

And an investigation into the timing of the report's release is needed as well, Oaken added. "Now that the report has been leaked, we can all see that the Government was trying to pull the wool over our eyes. The Information Commissioner must investigate the way in which the report was slipped out hours before Live 8. This government seems unable to face up to its public duty and let people see the information they are entitled to see. We cannot allow ministers to continue to bury bad news."

And it's not just opposition politicians who are raking the Blair government's drug policies. "The leaked report from the Birt think tank is devastating proof of the futility of prohibition," Labor Party Member of Parliament Paul Flynn, a long-time critic of drug prohibition, told DRCNet.

"This is a devastating critique of the government's policy and a powerful argument against prohibition," said Danny Kushlick of the Transform Drug Policy Institute. "Ministers should now publish the whole report and establish an inquiry to balance the cost of the war against drugs against the harm being done by the illegal trade in drugs."

"Drug policy reformers have been sounding alarm bells about the issues contained in the 'how the drug war has failed' report for many years," said Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt, a UK activist. "How long do we have to send this message out before legislation changes substantially? How many more people have to die in illegal drug dealing scenes, or be imprisoned unnecessarily, or killed 'inadvertantly' by cops in their line of duty or by each other over drug turf issues? How many and for how long?"

Mordaunt expected the report to have little impact on policy, she told DRCNet. "The only hope I got from it was to have it on the front page of our Guardian newspaper at this moment in history with the G8 going on in Gleneagles, Scotland. "It puts drug policy reform on the global social justice movement's map," she said. "Thank God. It is way past time."

The report's pages typically consist of a bold finding on some aspect of the drug trade -- peasant drug crop production, money laundering, trafficking networks, British networks -- with supporting evidence in the form of graphs, tables, and sidebars filling the remainder of the page. Among the top-of the-page findings of Lord Birt and his colleagues:

On drug plant production:

  • "Western influence in production areas is limited because a drugs economy thrives where the rule of law has failed, or where international norms have been breached."
  • "Drug crop eradication alone appears not to limit illicit crops in the long term."
On drug trafficking:
  • "The capacity of the drugs industry to source and supply heroin and cocaine is enhanced by the wide diversity of routings, methods and types/scales of organizations involved."
  • Seizures only have a limited impact on profitability for traffickers."
  • "Western government interventions have tended to have a short-lived or negligible impact on retail prices downstream. "The high seizure rates required to put a major trafficker out of business pose a substantial challenge to law enforcement."
On money laundering:
  • "The money laundering business has become increasingly sophisticated and difficult to disrupt."
On the British drug trade:
  • "The long term decline in the real price of drugs, against a backdrop of rising consumption, indicates that an ample supply of heroin and cocaine has been reaching the UK market.
  • "UK importers and suppliers make enough profit to absorb the modest cost of drug seizures."
The Birt report's conclusion, which also addressed consumption issues covered in the first half of the report, is hard to sugarcoat: "The drugs supply market is highly sophisticated, and attempts to intervene have not resulted in sustainable disruption to the market at any level," the group declared. "As a result the supply of drugs has increased, prices are low enough not to deter initiation, but prices are high enough to cause heavy users to commit high levels of crime fund their habits."

The Birt report presents British lawmakers and voters alike with a stark choice: Continue down the path of prohibition with no real prospect of success, or find a better way that reduces instead of increases the harm to both drug using individuals and the societies of which they are an inescapable part.

-- END --
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Issue #394 -- 7/8/05

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