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Europe: Britain's Drug War Not Working, Think-Tank Finds

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #545)
Consequences of Prohibition
Politics & Advocacy

Traditional drug war law enforcement tactics have not worked in Britain, according to research released Wednesday by the UK Drug Policy Commission. The commission is a non-governmental body that lists among its objectives providing "independent and objective analysis of UK drug policy."

In the study, Tackling drug markets and distribution networks in the UK: a review of the recent literature, the researchers reported that British drug markets are "extremely resilient" and that increasing seizures of drugs had had little impact at the street level. Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on drug enforcement, "there is remarkably little evidence of its effectiveness in disrupting markets and reducing availability," the authors concluded.

"We were struck by just how little evidence there is to show that the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on UK enforcement each year has made a sustainable impact and represents value for money, and no published material to allow comparisons of different enforcement approaches," said Tim McSweeney, one of the authors of the review.

"All enforcement agencies aim to reduce drug harms and most have formed local partnerships to do this, but they still tend to be judged by measures of traditional supply-side activity such as seizure rates," said the commission's David Blakey. "This is a pity as it is very difficult to show that increasing drug seizures actually leads to less drug-related harm. Of course, drug dealers must be brought to justice, but we should recognize and encourage the wider role that the police and other law enforcement officials can play in reducing the impact of drug markets on our communities."

Still, the authors of the report suggested that law enforcement does have a role to play, particularly in focusing on drug markets with the most "collateral damage," such as gang violence, human trafficking, and drug-related criminality. Police need to work closely with local communities, the authors said, as well as recognizing the unintended and unanticipated consequences of enforcement measures, such as a "crackdown" that merely moves dealers to nearby neighborhoods.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

How many more geniuses must state the obvious before some intelligent action occurs?
Do we have to witness more St Valentine's Day massacres before the penny drops?
John Marks

Sat, 08/02/2008 - 2:54am Permalink
Malkavian (not verified)

My favorite quote from that commission (it's on page 81):
"The limits of policy

It is striking that, despite the longstanding political prominence of the drugs problem in the UK and despite relatively coherent strategies and substantial public investment, Britain, particularly England, has fared so poorly. By measures of use and dependence rates, Britain is at the top of the European ladder. This did not happen as the consequence of one short epidemic burst but is the result of a steady worsening in the last quarter of the twentieth century. It is encouraging that the problem does not seem to have worsened since about 2000, but that is the strongest positive statement one can make confidently at present.

The most fundamental point to understand about drug policy is that there is little evidence that it can influence the number of drug users or the share of users who are dependent. There is no research showing that any of the tougher enforcement, more prevention or increased treatment has substantially reduced the number of users or addicts in a nation. There are numerous other cultural and social factors that appear to be much more important.

What are the principal determinants of rates of drug use? Surely fashion or popular culture has to be given considerable weight. For example, in most nations throughout the Western world, from Australia to Finland, there was an upturn of about one-half in rates of cannabis use among 18-year-olds between approximately 1992 and 1998 (MacCoun and Reuter 2001), though from very different base rates in the various countries. Some of those nations had become tougher in their marijuana policies in that time (e.g. the US), most made no change and others became more tolerant (e.g. Australia); the policy stance seemed to have no effect. It is hard to identify which underlying cultural values drove these changes simultaneously, but their breadth and consistency make it very likely that the increasingly globalised popular culture has a prominent role. After about 1998, the growth stopped as abruptly as it started; again there is no policy intervention that one can turn to for an explanation. Similarly the timing of epidemics of heroin use in different nations seems unrelated to government policy and appears to be driven instead by the confluence of broad demographic, social and economic changes."

Sat, 08/02/2008 - 11:04am Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.Canada Not here in Vancouver where the media are joined at the hip with the police in a concerted effort to blacklist those with addictions and the other small time criminals that they can capture.Meanwhile,gangs kill with impunity and the arrests stand at exactly zero.Thanks for saving us from petty thieves while gangsters shoot up the streets and laugh at the squad formed to make their capture a's easy to cast aspersions at an unknown enemy from a position of safety while hurling accusations at those that are vulnerable to arrest five times every day,without exception.Pandering may increase your popularity but it does nothing for your view as a reasonable human being.

Tue, 08/05/2008 - 5:20am Permalink
Mark E La (not verified)

As a doctoral candidate and researcher in the field of drug use the content of this report came as no surprise. As an individual who has been addcited to heroin and other prescribed opiates for nearly 30 years I find it hillarious!
The war on drugs, as Julian Buchannan has pointed out, has been a war on drug users from day one.
I just count myself very lucky to live in the UK where my drug using history doesn't preclude me from my current educational opportunities. It is very different however for those who are perhaps not quite so well equipped for an academic career. For instance, because of my criminal record (for offences committed some 20 years ago) I still counld not get a job at MacDonalds or at BT answering telephones. Our social policies in this light are as insane as any I have ever looked into. I'm grateful to the education system for giving me the oppotunities I now enjoy. A career as an academic if preferable to some periods of long-term unemployment I experienced because of my drug problem.
I hold my hands up, at times I was unemployable BUT given the opportunity I have grasped it with both hands and now have more degrees than a thermometer and a PhD on the horizon. I'm looking specifically at prohibition and harm reduction as two contrasting and, dare I say it, variably successful approaches to drug use.
Let's face it, the drug war is one of the biggest neo-liberal scams ever pulled off. No other arena of public policy would be sustainable on such a thin veneer of evidence and certainly not in light of abject failure; the abject failure that characterises the war on drugs. I applaude the stop the war on drugs campaign both morally and in principle.
If anyone out there who reads my response to this report on UK drug policy should have a desire to contact me please feel free to do so. I'm interested in recording people's experiences of harm reduction approaches to their drug use. I can be contacted at [email protected]
My past is something I obviously don't shout about from the rooftops but equally it is also something for which I will no longer feel shame or stigma. That gets nobody anywhere fast. So fellow users and/or recoverers let's hear your stories.
Until the mainstream narrative on drug use is challenged by the alternative narratives of drug users and their positive accounts of strength, courage, and determination nothing much will change. I've read that every year 400,000 people die in the US from 'poor diet and lack of exercise' while on average 17,000 die drug related deaths (including suicide). C'mon, it's time to take the facts to the centers of power and rub it right in their smug, ignorant faces.
I smile every time I recall the story of the evagelical, super-star preacher caught with a rent boy and meth pipe. Is not hypocrisy our true enemy?
So my colonial cousins, I salute you from the UK and urge you to continue fighting against this irrational war on drugs on all possible fronts -- as ptacticioners of harm reduction with drug using individuals and as fonts of policy initiatives and ideas.
Regards....J Mark

Thu, 08/07/2008 - 8:03am Permalink

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