Lurking, seemingly unnoticed, down the web-page from the official new drug strategy document released last month, the UK Government also released the official evaluation of its previous 2010 - 2016 drug strategy. If they were trying to keep this document under the radar they did a good job - it wasn’t mentioned by any Minister in a Home Office press release, in any of the media coverage or expert analysis, or in the Parliamentary debate the following week. We have to confess, we also missed it during the media melee, so hat-tip to Richard Ford from the Times for spotting it.
This is a shame because it is a remarkable document that demands greater attention. The evaluation is a damning indictment of the UK’s enforcement led approach to drugs; not only its failure and futility, but its counterproductivity. Most striking is the section on enforcement - where the malfunctioning nature of prohibition becomes most apparent.
“Activity solely to remove drugs from the market, for example, drug seizures, has little impact on availability”
“Illicit drug markets are resilient and can quickly adapt to even significant drug and asset seizures. Even though enforcement may cause wholesale prices to vary, street‑level prices are generally maintained through variations in purity."
“The resilience of the drugs market is again demonstrated as multiple [web]sites replace any, for example Silk Road 1.0, that are taken down.”
“The UK illegal drugs market is extremely attractive to organised criminals as the prices charged at street level are some of the highest in Europe and are sufficient to repay the costs of smuggling the drugs into the UK.”
“There is, in general, a lack of robust evidence as to whether capture and punishment serves as a deterrent for drug use” “There is very limited evidence of the impact of stop and search on restricting supply.”
“However, there are potential unintended consequences of enforcement activity such as violence related to drug markets and the negative impact of involvement with the criminal justice system.” “...including unemployment and harm to families – parental imprisonment is a risk factor for child offending, mental health problems, drug abuse and unemployment amongst others.”
“Due to the absence of sufficient data on spend or the direct impact of activities it has not been possible to produce value for money estimates for enforcement or enforcement‑related activities.”
These quotes speak for themselves, but they are usefully seen in the context of the official strategy that the evaluation was supposed to inform. Remember that the key focus of the new enforcement strategy is to reduce crime and restrict availability. Here is a formal review saying the past strategy did nothing of the sort, has no prospect of doing so - and in crucial respects, actually made things worse. It describes how we are squandering £1.6 billion a year enforcing the drug laws, including making seizures of drugs and assets, with little effect on street prices or availability. All while fueling drug market violence, and harming the young and vulnerable through criminalising them. And for what?
Despite claims from Government that the drug strategy is working because drug use is falling, in fact drug use hasn’t fallen for 8 years. Class A drugs use has remained basically static since records began in 1993 - but there have been recent rises in cocaine and ecstasy. More importantly, drug deaths have risen dramatically (including for cocaine and ecstasy - but especially for opiates), hitting record levels for four years in a row.
It is also notable that the evaluation repeatedly notes how “There is insufficient evidence to assess whether government [interventions] represent good value for money.”
This is not only in enforcement, but in every area of the strategy. Indeed, until recently there has not been any formal evaluation framework, or published performance indicators for the drug strategy - of any kind. After years of pressure - from, amongst others, the Public Accounts Committee - one is now in place, albeit a woefully inadequate one.
But for the development of the new strategy, published in July, they seem to have been either flying blind, or where advice was given, it pointed towards failure and the urgent need for a change in direction. Amazingly the government has just ignored the findings of the evaluation, and issued a ‘more of the same’ drugs strategy - essentially identical to the last one, with a few cosmetic tweaks. The only part of the strategy that the evaluation has anything much positive to say about is regarding treatment - which other research shows can be value for money. Yet the Government is cutting public health budgets to local authorities that include drug service provision. No one of any age has ever died from an overdose in a supervised drug consumption room, or a heroin prescribing clinic. How many more poor and vulnerable people need to die before both Tories and Labour follow the evidence, and protect our communities by legally regulating drugs to steer people towards safer products, while fully funding drug services for all who need them?
Depressingly the findings of the evaluation are not new. They closely echo analysis from many NGOs (including Transform), independent commissions (Police Foundation, RSA, UKDPC) and academics over the years. As well as Whitehall analysis from the ACMD - particularly with regard to reducing record death rates, No 10 strategy unit (2003), the Home Affairs Select Committee, The Science and Technology Select Committee, and the Public Accounts Select Committee.
The ongoing commitment to punitive prohibitions has never been about evidence - it is a political programme serving other political and ideological interests. The Home Office do not want proper research and evaluation because they know what it will reveal. The path to a better drug policy is clear, but if a damning evaluation and record drug deaths isn’t enough to prompt even a meaningful review of the options, then what is? We can see the cost of failure in the human tragedy all around us: The government must be called to account.