(Modern Policy Making: Ensuring policies deliver value for money. National Audit Office, November 2001.)
The UK is in the middle of a drug policy crisis. Whilst the debate on drug policy issues has developed, there is a dearth of evidence on which to base a true assessment of what works and more crucially, what does not. Transform Drug Policy Foundation is calling on the Government to instigate an audit of the effectiveness of enforcing the drug laws in order to expose expenditure to comprehensive scrutiny and to help in the process of defining success and failure. This briefing outlines the need for such an audit
Significantly for all of these disturbing facts is that they all display trends that have worsened steadily over the past three decades, and continue to worsen.
This current crisis has been precipitated by the confluence of a number of issues:
Billions are spent each year on a policy of drug law enforcement with highly questionable outcomes. The effectiveness of drug law enforcement has traditionally been poorly evaluated and has never been audited to date. The National Audit Office published a guide in November 2001 called Modern policy making: Ensuring policies deliver value for money. In this report the NAO state:
Such as, the Transform would argue, a 1000% increase in heroin use. The NAO report continues:
In 1998 Keith Hellawell was appointed Drug Tsar and produced a ten-year drug strategy that included a series of four key performance indicators. These indicators have been widely criticised for not including a measure of impact on public health and for setting unrealistic targets.
At the time these targets were introduced, no methodology had been established for gathering the relevant data. Without baseline data or ongoing data collection the targets became meaningless.
By 2002 the post of Drugs Tsar had been quietly shelved and the four key performance indicators and associated targets in the National Drug Strategy were redrafted. The main change (excepting the treatment indicator) being the removal of numerical targets:
1) Young people
3) Drug treatment
No methodology was ever established to satisfactorily measure the availability of class A drugs. Rather than measuring availability by using price and purity of illegal drugs, which would show rising availability, the revised indicators opt for drug seizures, arrests and asset forfeiture, which will show falling availability. Rises in seizures and arrests can easily be accounted for by expanding drug markets or more intense police activity. However there is no evidence that increased seizures and arrests have any measurable impact on drug availability. The former Drugs Tsar, Keith Hellawell, in his evidence to the Home Affairs Select committee (30 Oct 2001) stated that:
Evidence that has been gathered, from independent studies and national surveys such as the British Crime survey, suggests that drug problems continue to worsen, with heroin and cocaine use, drug availability and drug-related crime still rising dramatically. As a graphic example the Deputy Assistant Commissioner Mike Fuller recently stated that 50% of street crime in London was related to crack use. Ten years ago crack was almost unheard of in London.
An independent audit would establish, with far greater clarity than is currently available, what the impact of current drug policy enforcement is, whether it represents value for money, and which types of enforcement interventions are effective and which are not.
Such an audit, undertaken by an independent body such as the National Audit Office (NAO), would provide a detailed and objective study clearly linking expenditure to outcomes. Crucially an audit would be distanced from the emotive and polarised debate on drugs.
can have an indirect impact on other policies either in the same department
or other departments and organisations
A policy may also have an
Successfully meeting performance targets in Customs and Excise has a hugely negative effect at street level. In his evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Terry Byrne, of Customs and Excise (C&E), gave the biggest clue as to how enforcement helps create the very problems it is intended to solve. When asked if the efforts of C&E affected the price and availability of drugs at street level, he replied: "Prices are as low as they have ever been. There is no sign that the overall attack on the supply side is reducing availability or increasing the price." However, he did counter this with this comment on how C&E affects prices at wholesale level: "The price of a kilo of cocaine in South America is £1,000. It should cost about £1,500 by the time it reaches the UK, but it actually costs £30,000."
increase in value of this illegally traded commodity presents a significant
problem at the heart of prohibition. The consequence of this price hike
is that the trade now becomes immensely attractive to organised crime
because of the profit margin and street prices are so extortionate that
dependent users often resort to acquisitive crime to support a habit.
Audit of drug treatment services
2002 the Audit Commission published the report Changing Habits:
The National Treatment Outcomes Research Study in 1998 (NTORS) found that every pound spent on drug treatment saved three pounds in criminal justice expenditure, due to reduced offending.
Audit of HM Customs and Excise prevention of drug smuggling
In 1998 the
National Audit Office published a report which examined "the contribution
made by HM Customs and Excise to tackling the problems of drug misuse
in the United Kingdom." Again this proved to be a useful exercise
critiquing the organisations' operational effectiveness and highlighting
how existing indicators "do not show the extent to which the Department
have any overall impact on the illegal drugs market within the United
Kingdom, either in the short or longer term."
The Department conceded that "because details of both demand and supply [of drugs] were concealed, it was difficult for them, or anybody else, to identify impacts." In other words they had little indication of whether they were achieving their key goal or not.
The US experience: "What We Don't Know Keeps Hurting Us"
It is useful to see how other countries have addressed this issue, and the US, as the chief architect of global drug enforcement policy and the dominant influence on the evolution of UK drug policy, should be examined in order to inform our thinking.
In 2001 the National Academy of Sciences produced a two hundred page report for the White House Office of Drug Control Policy called Informing America's Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don't Know Keeps Hurting Us. The report shows that the US faces many similar problems to the UK in evaluating effectiveness:
Support for an audit
Drugscope is an umbrella organisation for over 900 member bodies including health, criminal justice, research, academic and voluntary organisations.
recommendation to the Home Affairs Select Committee report on UK Drug
Liberal Democrat Party
From their new drug policy adopted at spring conference 2002:
National Association of Probation Officers
(NAPO Press release November 2001)
Historically policy formation around illegal drugs has been driven more by politics than science, a trend that continues today. When elements of drug policy have been properly evaluated by an independent audit, these exercises have proved extremely instructive. In the case of drug treatment it revealed significant shortcomings in implementation and provided guidance on how increased effectiveness could be achieved.
The only element of drug enforcement to be audited was Customs and Excise. This audit (and the follow up by the Public Account Committee) strongly suggested that spending was not effective at reducing drug availability and showed little potential to be so in the future.
of the vast bulk of drug enforcement spending has never been properly
evaluated. The evidence that does exist, (and indeed the evidence that
is abundantly clear from walking around almost any deprived inner city
community in the UK), shows that drug law enforcement is not achieving
its stated goals, and may even be contributing to making some problems
now a broad consensus that drug policy reform is necessary; but views
on how to proceed remain polarised within the wider law and order debate.
The high profile, emotive
It is hugely important that drug policy is evidence-based and proactively developed by civil servants in conjunction with the relevant agencies, rather than developed as part of a populist law and order agenda heavily influenced by tabloid headlines.
and scientific basis of a value for money audit, that clearly relates
spending to measurable outcomes, would help enormously in informing the
debate and in more successfully allocating billions of pounds of expenditure.
Drug policy has slipped into a quagmire over the last three decades. An
audit provides a very powerful tool for developing the evidence base to
lead us out of the swamp and to transform our streets, prisons and communities.
Drug Policy Institute
EMCDDA annual report 2003 (www.EMCDDA.org)