LEGALISATION A NO-GO AREA
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.