Cut through the drug war propaganda with these five classic examples


The below is an extract from Transform's publication, 'Ending the war on drugs: How to win the global drug policy debate'.


Those attempting to defend the war on drugs frequently cite statistics that give the misleading impression that prohibition is working, when the exact opposite is true. It's hard to think of another area of social policy where the waters are so muddied by statistical chicanery. This sort of specious evidence, attempting to dress up failure as success, usually comes in one of five common varieties.

1. Localised success

Example “Cocaine production in Colombia has fallen this year.

The statistics behind this claim may well be true (they may not, but let's assume they are). However, local production is largely irrelevant in the context of a globalised market, as falls in production in one region are quickly made up by rises in another. This pattern has been observed repeatedly in regional shifts in the production of coca, opium and cannabis – in fact, it is so frequently observed that it has become known in official shorthand as the 'balloon effect' (because if you squeeze a balloon on one side, it expands on the other).


The 'balloon effect': Increased production of coca has been observed in Peru and Bolivia following the crackdown in neighbouring Colombia 


The key point is that global production has always kept pace with global demand, which has risen steadily over the last 50 years (see box Why drug prohibition can never work, below). Illegal drug markets are not confined by geographical boundaries, and localised successes should not be allowed to disguise the larger-scale systematic failure to control global production. This is the worst form of cherry-picking. Keep the focus on the bigger picture, using official national and international statistics that are not in dispute.


2. Short-term localised success

Example Street drug dealing fell by 10% in the last six months in Chicago.”

Again, this may well be true, but short-term changes often mask longer-term trends. They can also be due to (non-policy-related) external factors, changes in statistical collection or methodology, or sometimes, in the case of marginal changes, random variation within statistical error parameters. This sort of cherry-picking can be countered by bringing the focus back to the bigger-picture statistics that show the failure of current policy both nationally and internationally. Criticism should be levelled at policy makers, not those who are implementing the policies- the police may be doing the best job they can, it just happens to be an impossible one. It is also important to remind policy makers that it is the policy of prohibition that created the crime and illegal markets in the first place.


3. Process success

Examples “We have set up a new agency, appointed a new Drug Tsar, started a partnership project, passed tough new legistlation, invested millions in a, b and c, announced ambitious new targets on x, y and z.

These are age-old exercises in distraction. Policy must be judged on outcomes, not inputs or process indicators. Challenge policy makers on their record – the outcomes of the policies they are supporting. Do not let them get away with announcing yet more headline-grabbing new enforcement initiatives. Have these new changes made any difference to the bigger picture on supply, availability, crime, or problematic use? The problems with prohibition are systemic: they can't be solved with superficial tweaks to policy which, at best, only marginally reduce the harms created by the policy in the first place. More likely, they will simply displace problems, costing governments and taxpayers more money without any additional benefits.

4. Success on meaningless measures

Examples “The volume of drug seizures is up, the number of dealers jailed has increased, we have ‘smashed’ record numbers of drug gangs.”

These are measures that primarily reflect the level of expenditure on enforcement and the size of the illegal market. They rarely, if ever, translate into the policy outputs that prohibition is striving for – i.e. reduced drug production, trafficking, availability, or use, let alone reduced harm. They sound great in the media – catching criminals, intercepting nasty drugs etc. – but give a misleading impression of success where there is none.

Again, challenge people who use these sorts of statistics to show what impact they are having on meaningful indicators, and keep to the bigger picture. Don't let officials who talk about 'x quantities of drugs prevented from reaching the streets' go unchallenged. Point out that such seizures have no long-term impact on overall supply: drugs are cheaper and more available than ever.

Always bring these claims back to the long-term, ongoing, systematic failure of prohibition and the relative effectiveness of decriminalisation or regulation when measured against key indicators.


5. Success, but only compared with previous disaster

Example “Crack use has fallen since last year.”

When compared to a policy as disastrous as heavy-handed enforcement and large-scale incarceration, almost any change in intervention will start to look like progress. A good example is the improved outcomes from coercing drug using offenders into abstinence-based 'treatment' as opposed to sending them to jail. The point here is that imprisonment is so expensive and counterproductive that any alternative spending would produce better results – burning the money, giving offenders juggling lessons; in fact almost anything.

The crack example can also illustrate the important point that drugs come in and out of fashion largely independently of policy and law. Prevalence of one drug may fall after an epidemic, while another simultaneously rises. It is relatively easy for policy makers to cherry-pick some positive statistics and misleadingly hold them up as representative of wider progress. Again, the way to counter this is to focus on the longer-term bigger picture. Globally, drug use has risen steadily for decades under prohibition, especially use of the most problematic drugs. And the harms from criminal drug markets have risen even more alarmingly.

Beginning over a century ago with opium dens, before moving on to 'reefer madness', and then panics around cocaine, crack, meth and most recently various 'legal highs', policymakers and the media have historically demonised particular drugs, their effects and their users. This has in part been to shock the public into supporting extreme and repressive measures, and to make them think any action is a success, without actually considering the evidence properly.


For a concise guide to making the case for legal regulation, download our free Debating Guide on PDF. 'Debating drugs: How to make the case for legal regulation' provides an at-a-glance summary of the arguments, organised into 12 key subject areas.