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"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not, genius will not, education will not. The slogan 'press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."
Calvin Coolidge
"I say legalize drugs because I want to see less drug abuse, not more."
Edward Ellison, former Head of Scotland Yard's Anti-drug Squad
"Things alter for the worse spontaneously, if they be not altered for the better designedly."
Francis Bacon

We Must Audit Prohibition

Courtesy Transform

"The costs of failing to identify flaws in policy design and implementation and not learning lessons from previous policy initiatives can be substantial."
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 Institute 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.

A crisis in UK drug policy

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:

Why do we need an audit?
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:

"Departments need to be able to maintain service delivery when something unexpected occurs which knocks a policy off course;

Such as, the TDPI would argue, a hundred-fold increase in heroin use. The NAO report continues:

…they (government departments) need to review policies, for example to determine when the time is right to modify a policy in response to changing circumstances so that it remains relevant and cost effective; and departments may need to terminate policies if they are no longer cost effective or they are not delivering the policy outcomes intended."

Current evaluation is ineffective
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.

"We believe it is unwise, not to say self defeating, to set targets which have no earthly chance of success. We recommend that [the Government] focuses on outcomes rather than processes as indicators of success and that where a process is intended to lead to a particular outcome, the basis for expecting this be explained."
(Home Affairs Committee Enquiry Report into UK drug policy, Nov 2001)

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
1998 - to reduce the proportion of people under the age of 25 reporting the use of Class A drugs by 25% by 2005 (and by 50% by 2008).

2002 - to reduce the use of class A drugs and the frequent use of illicit drugs among all young people under the age of 25, especially the most vulnerable young people.

2) Crime
1998 - to reduce the levels of repeat offending amongst drug abusing offenders by 25% by 2005 (and by 50% by 2008).

2002 - reduce drug-related crime, including as measured by the proportion of offenders testing positive at arrest.

3) Drug treatment
1998 - increase participation of problem drug abusers in drug treatment programmes by 55% by 2004 (by 66% by 2005 and by 100% by 2008).

2002 - increase participation of problem drug users in drug treatment programmes by 55% by 2004 and by 100% by 2008, and increase year on year the proportion of users successfully sustaining or completing treatment programmes.

4) Availability
1998 - reduce the availability of Class A drugs by 25% by 2005 (and by 50% by 2008).

2002 - reduce the availability of illegal drugs by increasing: the proportion of heroin and cocaine targeted on the UK which is taken out; the disruption/dismantling of those criminal groups responsible for supplying substantial quantities of Class A drugs to the UK market; and the recovery of drug-related criminal assets.

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:

"I stood up there for three or four years as a chief constable with the Head of Customs and said, tongue in cheek quite frankly, that we were doing well because we had seized more drugs and arrested more people. Towards the end of that I felt less comfortable with that because I saw in the communities that the position was getting worse."

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.

An example of non-joined up policy

"Policies can have an indirect impact on other policies either in the same department or other departments and organisations… A policy may also have an unintended impact."
(Modern Policy Making - NAO ibid.)

Successfully meeting performance targets in Customs and Excise has a hugely negative affect 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."

The thirty-fold 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.

Is there a precedent for auditing drug policy?

In February 2002 the Audit Commission published the report Changing Habits: The Commissioning and Management of Community Drug Treatment Services for adults, a detailed examination of 'what works' in drug treatment. The audit found that treatment could be both effective and value for money, looked at how services could be made more effective, highlighted where problems were arising and made a number of practical recommendations for changes in policy and practice.

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."

For more information visit Transform