When the drugs policies don't work
Since 2002, the primary aim of the UK's drug strategy has been to "reduce the harm that drugs cause society". Sounds sensible enough. But from that simple mantra flow questions which are threatening to turn our approach to drugs upside down.
Does arresting street dealers and seizing drugs do anything to reduce harm? Does it, in some cases, actually create more harm? And, most controversially, would it be better to allow a slight increase in drug use if that leads to substantial reduction in drug harm?
Today the influential think tank, the UK Drugs Policy Commission calls for a more targeted approach - focusing less on arrests and seizures and more on those aspects of the drugs market that cause most damage.
Their report says that "a move away from directly attacking drug supply to one that prioritises some drug markets or dealers who are deemed more harmful also implies that agencies 'tolerate' others".
The commission recognises that this "may be misrepresented as being 'soft on crime'" but that it has the potential for "improving public perceptions of enforcement by making an impact on the main harms experienced by communities".
It might go against the instincts of every drugs squad officer in the land, but some pretty powerful voices are advocating a strategic re-think.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recently said that in trying to reduce the harm from drugs, "arrests and seizures are unlikely to have much positive impact". Instead, they hint at a pragmatic approach. "Although entrenched markets may be difficult to disable, they can be guided by enforcement action so that they do the least damage possible".
Shaping drug markets to be less harmful is the principle behind what is called "aggressive" (as opposed to "cautious") harm-reduction. US academics Jonathan Caulkins and Peter Reuter introduced the concept [831Kb PDF] in an essay in the British journal Safer Communities this year.
Aggressive harm-reduction, they write, "is even open to policies that could increase use slightly if they reduce harmfulness substantially".
"For instance, if use increased by only 10% while cutting harm per unit of use by 50%, then total harm would still be reduced by 45% since (1 + 10%) * (1 - 50%) = 55%."
The arithmetic looks pretty speculative, but the principle is interesting. Indeed, it could be argued that, up to a point, this is the kind of formula that the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) already uses.
Soca's remit is to reduce harm from drugs, but it wrestles with the concern that traditional enforcement activity can have unintended consequences. For instance, one of the agency's board recently listed the possible negative implications of seizing, say, a large shipment of heroin:
• it might lead to higher prices which in turn might lead to an increase in acquisitive crime;
• it might mean poorer quality supply on the streets which might result in more drug-related deaths
• and disrupting an organised gang might trigger a 'turf' war with increased violence, use of firearms, and murder.
Soca's director general Bill Hughes says these are the kind of anxieties which now shape every operation they run. As he told me:
"What we have got to look at is 'where is the most harm being caused to the communities of the United Kingdom?' You have to put your resources into these areas. We could just play cops and robbers for evermore and not make a real difference."
However, the UKDPC report is hinting at a further step. In publishing the essay by Caulkins and Reuter, the commission introduces us to the idea of "specific deterrence".
Another illustration comes from the city of High Point in North Carolina. Residents were intimidated by the activities of drug gangs openly dealing on residential streets. But rather than make lots of arrests, police gathered their evidence and then let it be known that, while they had enough information to get dozens of people jailed, they would do nothing if the open market ceased. The result was fewer arrests, a big fall in violent and property crime and open street dealing stopped.
Contrast that with the evaluation of a big drugs operation in Derbyshire a few years ago. Over 200 people were arrested for possession and supply of heroin and crack. But when academics assessed the consequences, they found that the availability of drugs hardly missed a beat, local addicts stopped turning up for treatment because they feared arrest, crime rates barely changed and local communities became more cynical about the police.
Politically, the idea that one might "push or mould" the illegal drugs market into "less harmful distribution practices" might, in the words of one Soca executive, "smack of defeatism". But for many, it is not people using drugs that blights their lives. It is the violence, the intimidation and the crime associated with the illegal market.
Today's report accepts that while there is currently "little political or public appetite to ease enforcement interventions", there should at least be, in their carefully chosen words, "scope for flexibility in application and approach".