Socialist Worker

Drugs policy run by prohibition addicts

Draconian measures in New Labour’s drugs policy cannot hope to solve the problems underlying drug use, writes Steve Rolles

Issue No. 1988

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

Last week saw the leak of a secret 10 Downing Street report into British drugs policy that casts a harsh light on the cynical politics at the heart the government’s drugs strategy.

Originally produced by “blue skies thinker” John Birt and Tony Blair’s strategy unit in 2003, this report is the second phase of a project commissioned by the prime minister.

It sought to come up with new ideas to address Britain’s seemingly intractable drugs problem and the ongoing failure of attempts to address it.

The report from the first phase of the project was made public by the Guardian newspaper in July 2005, presenting a detailed economic and social analysis of international and domestic drug policy.

It showed how “supply side enforcement interventions” such as crop eradication, customs seizures and policing are counterproductive. Put simply, the phase one report showed that:

  • Drugs production in developing countries has intractable economic and social causes and cannot be stopped.
  • Trafficking cannot be significantly curtailed - seizure rates of 60 to 80 percent would be required to have any serious impact, and nothing greater than 20 percent has ever been achieved.
  • Attempts to reduce drugs use by reducing the availability of drugs have failed – drugs use has risen consistently.
  • However, by inflating the costs of a weekly habit, supply side interventions have fuelled crime among dependent users. The cost of crime committed to support illegal cocaine and heroin habits amounts to £16 billion a year in Britain – more than the entire annual home office budget.

The newly leaked phase two report, with John Birt at the helm, uses this analysis as the basis for a series of policy recommendations. However, Birt essentially ignores the analysis of the first report by failing to engage with the fact that it is prohibition itself that creates many problems.

The phase two report does clearly acknowledge the phase one analysis: “Supply interruption has been ineffective worldwide in reducing the overall availability of drugs, and it has had little or no impact on reducing harms in the UK.”

It also goes on to undermine the strategy’s goal of reducing the availability of drugs by noting that “risk factors – particularly relating to deprivation – are the prime determinant of initiation into problematic drug use. Price and availability play a secondary role. There is no causal relationship between availability and incidence.”

Yet despite this analysis, Birt recommends that supply side interventions continue, and specifically that drug seizures be “proclaimed” – even though they are acknowledged on the previous page to be ineffective at reducing harm!

The report then recommends a series of draconian measures – including establishing a register of heroin addicts and making heroin use an offence – as a way of coercing drug using offenders into “treatment” procedures based on enforced abstinence, and aimed primarily at reducing their offending.

These proposals appear to have informed the government’s Drugs Act 2005, hastily barrelled through parliament in the hectic week before the House of Commons was dissolved for last year’s May general election.

This act introduced watered down versions of the Birt proposals, which now mean people face mandatory drug tests on arrest for certain “trigger” offences – before they have been charged, let alone found guilty of any offence.

It is a criminal offence to refuse these tests, punishable with three months in prison. Ominously, Birt suggests that such testing on arrest could be an interim step to criminalising heroin use.

The whole thrust of both the phase two report and the new Drugs Act is to completely ignore the fact that it is primarily the enforcement of prohibition that creates crime among offenders, and that social depravation is the key determinant of initiating problematic drug use.

The home office has launched an expensive propaganda offensive, with a range of glossily produced publicity materials, to convince us that its drugs strategy is working. Prominent in this publicity are proclamations of increasing drug seizures, designed to give the impression that the war on drug supply is being won – even though the exact opposite is true.

What we urgently need is an entirely new approach to the problem, one that deals with problematic drug use as the social and public health issue it clearly is.

Criminal justice solutions have failed historically and will inevitably continue to do so. Prohibition itself must be questioned as the dominant paradigm, and alternative policies, including legalisation and regulation of some or all currently illegal drugs need to be seriously considered.

Until we can have a rational debate based on evidence of effectiveness, instead of “tough on drugs” spin and misleading propaganda, there remains little hope of moving forward.

Steve Rolles works for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. For more detail and analysis see

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Article information

Sat 18 Feb 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1988
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