Friday, 29 October 2010

Drug Policy Harm Part Three: The Failure to Regulate

Continued from ... Drug Policy Harm Part Two: Misrepresenting Harms

Prohibition – Generating Harms

If we look at other aspects of prohibition we see the generation of significant violence and harms.  The MDA makes all consumers criminals. A third of the population admits drug use in the British Crime Survey. (Hoare and Flately 2008:5) Of course all these people are not subjected to criminal justice intervention, the system simply couldn’t cope, but all of them are liable to arrest, a criminal record and imprisonment. Events that could have a dramatic bearing on their lives. Jobs and homes are lost regularly by consumers who come into contact with the criminal justice system.  The impact of this is not spread evenly across the community. I have not been able to calculate the racial profile in the UK but figure 5 below shows how this process plays out for African-Americans.
Figure 5 (Source Jones et al 2005:13)
The war in drugs was launched by Richard Nixon. His Chief of Staff recorded in his diary, that Nixon had ‘emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognises this while not appearing to.’ Halderman 1994:53) The war on drugs has proved to be such a system.

The inequality generated by the selective enforcement of drug prohibition in Britain urgently requires detailed research. The Home Office was required to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment on their new drugs strategy in 2007. The first section of the assessment, titled Preliminary Screening, includes the question: ‘Could the aims of the policy be in conflict with equal opportunity, elimination of discrimination, promotion of good relations?‘ (Home Office 2008) To which the Home Office replied ‘NO’. This and the document in general demonstrate contempt for equality, which is reduced to a form filling exercise cynically ignoring a considerable body of evidence of inequality generated by the war on drugs.

The illegality of substances does not just impact on crime by criminalising their consumers. It has much wider impacts both within the UK and internationally and generates dramatic levels of harm. Central to this generation of crime and violence is prohibition, which in terms of policy, places the entire market, production, distribution, wholesale and retail, into the hands of organised crime. The illegal drug market is a state sponsored, tax free monopoly for criminals. The consequences of this are dramatic; however because of limited space I will restrict myself to a few examples

1.    Generation of acquisitive crime

Figure 6 below shows the cost of drug use for a heavy user in 2003. Having a Cocaine or heroin habit is expensive, raising £300, £400 or even £500 a week is impossible for most people through legal means. They resort to crime. The Strategy Unit estimated that 56% of the total number of crimes; some thirty six million crimes, are ‘drug-motivated crimes’ committed by drug users. (SU Drugs Project 2003:22) This is illustrated in Figure 7, again copied from the Strategy unit report to the cabinet.

Figure 6 (Source: SU Drugs Project 2003:12)

Figure 7 (Source: SU Drugs Project 2003:22)
Home Office Research has estimated that drug-motivated crime in total costs victims just under ten billion pounds per year and the economic costs to the community of the average ‘problematic drug user’ is in excess of £44,000. (Gordon et al 2006:44 & 41) In this market, unregulated prices emerge which lead to increased crime. The government’s own analysis finds that over half of all crime and victimisation are linked to behaviours generated by the economics of this market - which the government chooses not to regulate.

2. Prostitution of drug users

For many women and girls and a few men and boys, fundraising is achieved not through acquisitive crime but by prostituting themselves. Research carried out for the Home Office has shown that the drug and sex markets are intrinsically linked. (Hunter and May 2004) The same factors detailed above for acquisitive crime drive adults and children into prostitution. The Home Office’s Equality Impact Assessment makes no mention of the contribution of drugs policy in generating supply within prostitution nor does it acknowledge the gendered status of prostitution. (Home Office 2008)

3. Generation of Violence

In a review of economists’ contribution to the study of crime, Dills et al (2008:3) concluded that ‘economists know little about the empirically relevant determinants of crime.’ Applying various hypotheses on subjects as varied as arrest rates, capital punishment, gun laws and abortion rates, to an examination of aggregate data over long time periods and across countries exposed the various theories as wanting. However, they did ‘find one theory that is consistent with the aggregate time series and cross-country data on crime: the view that enforcement of drug prohibition encourages violent dispute resolution.’ (Ibid:22) Drug markets operate outside the law and have no recourse to legal procedure to resolve disputes. Drug dealers use violence to collect debts, they use violence to resolve disputes between themselves and they use violence to resist law enforcement efforts. Prohibition makes violence a cost effective business strategy. It introduces guns and knives on to our streets as routine business tools. Sometimes the state responds with violence. China celebrated UN world anti-drugs day in 2002 with the mass execution of 64 drug offenders. (Rolles et al 2006) Thailand’s security services murdered almost two and half thousand alleged drug dealers in just three months, in pursuit of the war on drugs. (Human Rights Watch 2004) Even lawful criminal justice responses generate perverse outcomes. As Sanho Tree has argued, law enforcement operates as a Darwinian natural selector removing less ruthless and less violent market participants. (Tree 2007) Over time law enforcement has driven out the non violent hippys like Howard Marks and replaced them with brutal, callous and vicious gangsters. (Marks 1996, Glenny 2008) The violence of the market raises prices; Caulkins & Reuter (1998) estimate that 33 per cent of the retail price of cocaine is paid to compensate dealers for their risk of death or injury. This in turn increases the fundraising requirements of problematic users, thus increasing crime and its associated victimisation.

4. Destabilisation of producer and transit countries

As well as generating considerable levels of violence in consumer countries like the UK the drug business has a far more dramatic impact on producer and transit nations. In Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia nations have been destabilised as a direct consequence of the so called war on drugs. Last year Michael Schulenburg, the UN Mission Chief in Sierra Leone observed ‘that the exposure to the international drug trade is the single biggest risk affecting the future of Sierra Leone’. (Reuters 2008) Guinea-Bissau has seen both its President and army chief murdered this year, killings directly linked to the country’s status as a transit country for the cocaine trade. (McGreal 2009) Internationally the war on drugs has subjected many poor nations to wave after wave of violence.

Continued ... Drug Policy Harm Part Four: The legal harms


  1. See for UK racial disparity.

    "Black people are six times more likely to be arrested than white people for drug offences and 11 times more likely to be imprisoned, according to new research claiming to show the racial bias of the criminal justice system."