Feature: In Britain, Labor's Decade-Long Drug War a Failure, New Report Finds

With Britain's 10-year UK Drug Strategy up for renewal or replacement next year, a series of reports detailing its flaws have appeared in recent months. Now, we can add one more to the list. This week, a new independent panel on drug policy issued a report saying that a decade of Labor's drug war had failed to curb the social problems and criminality related to drug abuse under prohibition.

UK government: failing at drug policy
The report, An Analysis of UK Drug Policy was authored by University of Maryland drug policy analyst Peter Reuter and Alex Stevens of the University of Kent, for the UK Drug Policy Commission. Headed by long-time drug reform proponent Dame Ruth Runciman, the commission describes its mission as "to provide independent and objective analysis of drug policy and find ways to help the public and policy makers better understand the implications and options for future policy."

If the commission's report is any indicator, policy makers can use the help. Labor's strategy of education campaigns, forced drug treatment, some harm reduction measures, and harsher prison sentences has not made an appreciable dent in drug use. Britain has the highest level of dependent drug users in Europe, the report found, and heroin use has skyrocketed from 5,000 people in 1975 to an estimated 280,000 now.

The report estimated the size of the British drug market at more than $10 billion a year and the cost of drug-related crime at more than $25 billion a year. It also found that Britain's drug use rates were among the highest in Europe.

While Reuters and Stevens were highly skeptical of the ability of drug policy to influence drug use, they praised harm reduction measures. "Government policies have only limited impact on rates of drug use itself," they wrote. "However, the UK has introduced evidence-based measures, notably the expansion of treatment and harm reduction, that have reduced the harms that would otherwise have occurred. On the other hand it operates measures, such as classifying drugs to deter use and increasing use of imprisonment, that have little or no support from available research."

The number of people in drug treatment had increased from 85,000 to 181,000 between 1998 and 2005, much of that increase driven by the criminal justice system, the authors noted. But the number of drug war prisoners has also increased by 111% in the past decade, and sentences are nearly a third longer than when Tony Blair took office.

The report's executive analysis section on policy implications is worth quoting at length:

There is little evidence from the UK, or any other country, that drug policy influences either the number of drug users or the share of users who are dependent. There are numerous other cultural and social factors that appear to be more important. It is notable that two European countries that are often used as contrasting examples of tough or liberal drug policies, Sweden and the Netherlands, both have lower rates of overall and problematic drug use than the UK.

Given the international evidence as to the limited ability of drug policy to influence national trends in drug use and drug dependence, it is unreasonable to judge the performance of a country's drug policy by the levels of drug use in that country. Yet that is the indictor to which the media and public instinctively turn. However, this is not to say that drug policy is irrelevant.

The arena where government drug policy needs to focus further effort and where it can make an impact is in reducing the levels of drug-related harms (crime, death and disease and other associated problems) through the expansion of and innovation in treatment and harm reduction services.

We know very little about the effectiveness and impact of most enforcement efforts, whether they are directed at reducing the availability of drugs or at enforcing the law over possession and supply. Imprisoning drug offenders for relatively substantial periods does not appear to represent a cost effective response.

Transparency in resource allocations is urgently needed if the overall and relative balance of supply and demand reduction interventions is to be considered.

The UK invests remarkably little in independent evaluation of the impact of drug policies, especially enforcement. This needs redressing if policy makers are to be able to identify and introduce effective measures in the future.

Unsurprisingly, the Blair government rejected the report's findings. "The British Crime Survey shows that drug use has fallen by 16% since 1998 and drug use among adults has fallen by 21%," a Home Office statement said. "We are determined to build on this progress by continuing to take more drugs off our streets, put more dealers behind bars and make sure young people are informed about the harms drugs cause," he said.

Equally unsurprisingly, the opposition Tories called the report "a shocking indictment" of Blair's drug policy. "After ten years in power this is a shocking indictment of the government's failure and shows that Tony Blair has utterly failed in his pledge to get tough on the 'causes' of crime," said Tory Shadow Home Secretary David Davis in a press release. "The consequences of this failure are not just that hundreds of thousands of young lives are being ruined -- drugs also fuel much of the gun and knife related violence on our streets today, thus destroying communities."

But the Tories would only offer more of the same, the press release indicated. "Conservatives would take real action to combat this scourge on society. Not only would we increase the amount of residential drug rehab beds and increase the prison capacity so that offenders can settle and complete their drug rehab courses, we would also establish a dedicated UK border police to stop drugs simply flowing in through our porous borders. This force would also act to detect and prosecute those who smuggle drugs into our country."

Danny Kushlick, director of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which advocates legalization, had a different solution. "We know from evidence that misuse of drugs is related significantly to social ill-being and social deprivation," he told the Guardian. "You cannot deal with that stuff with education and prevention or through teaching younger and younger children. You deal with it by redistributing wealth and improving wellbeing."

Britain has seen report after report detailing the failures of prohibitionist drug policy in the last two years. Next year, it will have the opportunity to put the lessons learned into practice. When was the last time we had such an overview of drug policy in the United States?

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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