Comment: What would the world look like after the war on drugs?

By Steve Rolles

Drugs are bad, therefore we must prohibit them. That’s the simplistic concept that our punitive approach to drugs is based on. But for a policy that wants to create a 'drug-free' society, criminalising production, supply and possession has been a total failure.

Drugs are now cheaper and easier to get a hold of, demand is growing and worse still, the ‘war on drugs’ has created a sprawling international illicit trade controlled by violent criminal entrepreneurs. These mafia kings now turn over more than $300 billion [£191 billion] each year, around £5 billion a year in the UK alone.

Yet these arguments have actually become mainstream and many experts think the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is out-of-date. The now-infamous Professor David Nutt, who said horse riding was more dangerous than taking ecstasy, gave evidence again at a parliamentary select committee this week arguing to decriminalise drugs. It is worth remembering that the last time parliament tackled this thorny issue back in 2002, back bencher David Cameron supported the recommendation that “the government initiates a discussion within the commission on narcotic drugs of alternative ways – including the possibility of legalisation and regulation – to tackle the global drugs dilemma”.

On the international level, former heads of state and UN luminaries of the Global Commission on Drugs Policy have made the same call. In February 2012, president Santos of Colombia even broached the subject publicly with Obama who made it clear he saw it as a "legitimate topic for debate".

In the UK, Transform Drug Policy Foundation has long argued that the choice is clear; drug markets can remain in the hands of organised criminals and street dealers or they can be controlled and regulated by the government. Society will always have drugs so we must choose the policy approach that delivers the best outcomes from our limited criminal justice and public health resources to minimise the harms associated with drugs. The evidence from the failure of prohibition demands that we have to explore the options for legal regulation.

Unfortunately, a historical stumbling block in the debate has been the fact that no clear vision of a post prohibition world has been available. The question 'how would it work?' has consequently been met with a lack of clarity, with myths and misrepresentations filling the void. This situation is now changing with a growing body of scholarship exploring regulatory market alternatives to blanket prohibitions. In 2009, Transform produced a detailed discussion of how the legal regulation of drug markets could operate, proposing specific models for a range of currently illicit drug products, and providing the rationale behind them.

After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’ considers the menu of options for controls over products – dosage, preparation, price and packaging; vendors – licensing, vetting and training requirements, marketing; outlets – location, outlet density, appearance; who has access – age controls, licensed buyers; and where and when drugs can be consumed. It then explores options for different drugs and different users to highlight the regulatory models that will deliver the best outcomes on health and wellbeing indicators. Lessons are drawn from successes and failures with alcohol and tobacco regulation in the UK and beyond, as well as controls over pharmaceutical drugs and other risky products and activities that are regulated by government.

Steps toward the regulation of drugs would naturally be phased in cautiously over a number of years, with close evaluation and monitoring of impacts and any unintended consequences (like the risks of over unregulated or over-commercialisation leading to an increase in use). A flexible range of tools would also be applied differently for different products, with the more restrictive controls deployed for more risky drugs or drug preparations, and, less restrictive controls for lower risk products.
If implemented intelligently, such an approach holds the potential to not only reduce the harms associated with consuming drugs but, in the longer term, towards safer products, safer behaviours, and safer using environments – the precise opposite of what has happened under prohibition.

Five basic models are proposed;
• medical prescription and supervised using venues for the highest risk drugs and most problematic users;
• a specialist pharmacist sales model, combined with named/licensed user access and volume sales rationing for mid-risk drugs, such as amphetamines, powder cocaine, and ecstasy;
• various forms of licensed retail, and licensed premises for sale and consumption (familiar with pubs and Dutch-style cannabis coffee shops);
• and unlicensed sales for the least risky products such as caffeine drinks, or coca tea. 

Regulation cannot produce a 'drug free world' or indeed a harm free world – in the short term it can only seek to reduce the problems that stem from prohibition and the illicit trade it has created. Neither can it address the underlying drivers of why people become drug addicts but it can help us to understand by removing political obstacles and moving to a more rational evidence-based footing where drug-policy resources can be used for proven public health interventions.

Unfortunately, Teresa May’s ignorant and ill judged response this week (to Nutt and Iversen’s select committee comments), shows there's resistance from some politicians to accepting evidence of what actually works.

Transform propose the way forward is through the UK government commissioning a comprehensive impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA). An impact assessment would compare the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of current policy as well as all the alternatives. The UN should also carry out a similar exercise at the international level to incorporate impacts on countries that produce and transfer drugs.

For all those genuinely committed to evidence based policy, it is important that all the alternative models undergo an impact assessment – from stepping up prohibition; leaving things as they are; Portuguese-style decriminalisation; legal regulation (for which Blueprint could be a guide). In the UK, it is now a statutory requirement for all new legislation to undergo an impact assessment before it comes before parliament, but this was not the case when the MDA was enacted.

Of course, the devil is in the detail and inevitably different social environments will require different approaches in response to the specific challenges they face. Transform’s Blueprint does not seek to provide all the answers – but rather to move the debate beyond ‘should we end the drug war?’ to ’what will the world look like after the war on drugs’?

Steve Rolles is senior policy analyst at Transform Drugs Policy Foundation, and author of ‘After the War on Drugs; Blueprint for Regulation’. You can follow Transform on Twitter: @transformdrugs

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.