Side event – Current drug policies: Evaluating indicators, examining future options

Peter Reuter
The price of heroin has declined steadily in the USA. For cocaine, something more interesting is happening – stable purity, but the price fell sharply in the 1990s with a sharp increase since 2006. Of course, this sharp increase still leaves the inflation below that of 1990. For cannabis, there has been a substantial increase in potency, with a stable price. Prices don’t say what is happening to supply and demand. Prices may have fallen because demand has gone down, or increased because of increasing demand. What we see in the USA is a sharp increase in cannabis seizures and a recent decline in cocaine. For Europe, we see a substantial increase in seizures of opiates but a very erratic pattern for cannabis and cocaine.
I have worked on a RAND study on estimates for demand, expenditures, etc.in the USA. It is the latest in a series of studies. The number of chronic cannabis users have increased by 30% since 2000, while the number of chronic cocaine users decreased by 25%. Cannabis use increase, while cocaine use decreased. What was interesting was that in this picture of consistency (we have failed to curb supply), we see that change happens over time. It is a reminder that the drug problem is not a single problem and it evolves over time.

John Collins, LSE Ideas
The idea used to be to eradicate drug demand and supply, “reaching zero”. In 1909, we had a world awash with opiates, and the international community came together to discuss the issue. They decided to regulate. And it is this recognition that we cannot solve the issue, but there was a feeling that regulation could allow protection from the market. The issue was a question of political will. What was put together was a highly imperfect control of the market, which we still have today. The 1961 convention is not new, it was a combination of existing conventions. Drug use expanded since the 1960s. The two regulatory flaws were the view that we could eradicate the drug market. There is a paradox with the current strategy. Any attempt to reduce supply leads to failure. The second flaw is on building a shrinking licit market. When we use estimates, these are often “guesstimates”, based on the previous year. The system also does not allow for the wide availability of essential medicines. So the UN is strategically adrift. We also need to focus on minimising harms rather than maximising it with failed policies.

Dave Bewley-Taylor, Global Drug Policy Observatory
Today, we have process indicators to measure policy effectiveness. And we are now realising that these indicators are inappropriate. We are dealing with the drugs problem as a wicked problem. We are now moving away from eliminating the market and towards market management and the reduction of harms. Drug markets are not necessarily violent. We need to look at measuring the impacts of drug markets and policy responses on health, social and economic development. We should move away from the flow and scale of the market towards different metrics that matter to individuals and communities. But then, what should we measure and how do we do so? When we start to unpack indicators, we see their complexity. There are different metrics in different countries – there is no one-size-fits-all approach. There are also difficulties in measuring well-being, quality of life, etc. This is an incentive to move away from law enforcement towards other social inclusion measures. How do we go about engaging in data capture? We can look at health domains, human rights, etc. We can use the Human Development Index for that. This is a pathway to improve policy.

OSF. You brought in the US drug consumption trends, which was interesting. In some countries, there has been a determination that cannabis carries fewer social harms than other substances. So there might be a public health gain in these trends.

Peter Reuter. What is interesting in the cocaine changes is that it seems to be a supply shift consequence. We can’t see a change in the demand side on this that would make sense. For cannabis, there seems to be a change in attitude and availability. But there is no direct explanation for these trends.

Question. What would happen when drugs would be legalised? Alcohol is a fine example of what happens when you prohibit it and legalise it again.

John. Drug consumption may go up, but problematic consumption may go down. We will wait until we have real world experience to assess the impacts.

Question. Christian Aid. What do you think about the money being made in drug trade. How can we reinvest this money more effectively from a law enforcement and finance perspective?

Dave. This is hugely important and highly complex when there are high levels of consumption.

John. Follow the money, but it will be tricky and may not have that big of an impact.

Peter. We are talking about  a lot of money. And the money goes to all those at the bottom of the scale so this is not laundered money, while those few at the top make a big fortune.

Question. I work in prisons and I have done work in domestic violence. The business of relying on the courts to control the bans does not work because over 50% of the people are not judged. We are here relying on a system that reduces the outputs. What happens to the offenders an victims?

Question. UNODC. I have been working with UNODC for years on Afghanistan, and many questions are related to courts and judicial courts, and we struggle because the indicators do not reflect the differences we want to bring. There are many discussions on how we can review our indicators. What would be your advice to link these disconnected pieces and bring technical assistance to people who need to measure drug control, without making it too political.

Dave. We can seek to target those individuals and groups that have the greatest capacity to harm in the drug market, than focusing on a broad-based approach. We could establish some Chatham House rule discussions where people can talk freely on these issues.

John. When you focus on eradication, you have no metrics. When you focus on alternative development, you are in a same situation – there is a shift in production and supply trends. We should move beyond this idea. Focus on criminality, violence, security, etc.

Question. It’s time to change, when we look at what is happening. Millions of money have been spent to decrease use and supply and we don’t see much impact.

Question. Diogenis. I want to look at the next step – what will happen when we do have the study ready. What are the perspectives in Europe? How can we help?

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