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Written by Administrator   
Friday, 05 September 2008 14:22

A Report on Drug Policy, Like So Many Before It, Fails to Recognise 
the Simple Fact That Prohibition Is Actually Part of the Problem

The publication today by the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) of its 
thorough review of existing literature on the failure of efforts to 
tackle the supply of illegal drugs, whilst welcome, is yet another 
example of a report that fails to notice the elephant in the room. 
Prohibition and its enforcement not only fails to restrict the 
availability of drugs but is itself the root cause of many of the 
most significant drug-related harms.

For the UK's lawmakers and enforcers it will make yet more grim 
reading, telling a familiar story of the systemic failure of UK 
supply-side drug enforcement to have any positive impact, with drugs 
becoming progressively cheaper, more available and more widely used 
over the past four decades. Whilst usefully restated, this critique 
is nothing new, following in the footsteps of numerous other reports 
including those from the Police Foundation (2000), the Number 10 
strategy unit (2003) and the RSA (2007).

All of these reports, however, suffer from the same conceptual flaw: 
they begin their analysis with the assumption that prohibition is a 
given rather than a policy option. It is not just that enforcement of 
prohibitions on drug production and supply are merely expensive and 
ineffective, or even that they often have disastrous unintended 
consequences, but rather that their enforcement actually creates the 
problem in the first instance. Failing to acknowledge the primary 
role prohibition has in creating the problems of illegal markets 
dooms any policy recommendations that follow.

The UKDPC report, for example, highlights how more strategic 
enforcement may be able to reduce the negative social impacts of drug 
dealing by shifting it geographically or changing dealing behaviors 
(from open street markets to less bothersome closed markets). Whilst 
these changes, if they can be achieved (and the report cautions that 
even here the evidence is flimsy), would be beneficial, there is 
something self-defeating and illogical about trying to minimise the 
harm caused by enforcement inside a framework that works to maximise 
it. It is effectively a policy at war with itself.

It is disappointing that when the UKDPC report does touch on the 
policy alternatives to absolute prohibition it does so only very 
briefly, with a mention of the legalisation debate tucked away in its 
final paragraph. When the report's most optimistic conclusion is that 
better enforcement may be able to "at least ameliorate the harms 
associated with visible drug markets", it's a shame that an 
opportunity to explore alternatives -- legal regulation and control 
of drug production and supply that would largely eliminate these 
socially corrosive illegal markets -- was missed.

The broader calls for a greater focus on public health and better 
evaluation of the outcomes of enforcement policy are obviously 
sensible, but if we are to have any progress beyond "marginally less 
disastrous" thinking about policy, we have to look further than 
prohibition. The contemporary reality that certain drugs can only be 
purchased from unregulated, untaxed and uncontrolled criminals is the 
result of policy choices. By treating the debate on alternatives to 
maintaining organised crime's monopoly as a no-go area, this report 
helps entrench the view that the basic tenets of prohibition cannot 
be challenged. In doing so it actually helps perpetuate the policy 
whose failure it describes so eloquently. 

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