Body of evidence

The UKDPC’s final conference saw politicians, policymakers, commentators and media representatives gather to discuss where next for drug policy. DDN reports

‘We need a new conversation about drugs,’ UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) chair Dame Ruth Runciman told delegates at the commission’s final conference, New generation, new problems, new drugs, last month. The UKDPC had been set up in 2007 to ‘provide objective analysis of the evidence for drug policy and practice and improve public understanding’, she said, publishing its final report in October (DDN, November, page 4). ‘The wider social and economic issues around drug use are at least as important, if not more so, than polarities around the legal status of drugs,’ she told delegates.

 Policy had not worked over recent decades, chair of the all-party group on drug policy reform, Baroness Meacher, told the conference. ‘In 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed, the government of the time believed that the drug problem would have been solved by 2010, but there has been a phenomenal increase in drug use over that time. The situation is out of control, and all the money is going to terrorists and drug barons.’ 

 It was important to abandon the assumption that there would ever be a drug-free world, she said, along with beliefs that emerging substances could be dealt with through the classification system or that banning a drug had any real effect. ‘This needs to be looked at properly, because we don’t have a logical system.’

 Education was a vital tool, she stressed. ‘We’re beginning to learn about preventative policies that work. It’s not about a didactic approach of just telling them in the classroom not to take drugs, but interactive teaching, building resilience and confidence and the ability to withstand peer pressure, hearing from people who’ve experienced drug use. We know what works in schools, and that’s what we should be spending the money on.’ 

 Evidence needed to be ‘treated properly’, said Liberal Democrat federal executive member Dr Evan Harris. ‘Policymakers need to be able to understand what is stronger and weaker evidence – randomised control trials, for example, are stronger than anecdotal evidence. There’s a hierarchy of strength of evidence – it’s not all subjective. Policymakers need to have a broad understanding of this.’

The argument that drug policy should be guided by evidence and not ideology made ‘no sense’, however, argued director of the Institute of Ideas Claire Fox, and the assumption that ‘better evidence and science’ would solve the problem was ‘false’. Politicians surrounded themselves with experts and advisors through lack of confidence in their own beliefs and ability to convince the public, she said – ‘that’s why evidence is given the last word’. 

 The ‘obsession’ with evidence was also the reason that the focus of so much drug policy was on harm and safety, she said. ‘There’s nothing about indulging in personally risky behaviour that merits state intervention. It’s up to people to decide how to live their lives.’ 

 ‘One of the saddest things is that we’ve gone backwards,’ said chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, Professor David Nutt, ‘from the introduction of needle exchange, which was not desired politically but which led to the UK having one of the lowest rates of HIV among drug users, to a point where politicians are interested, not in evidence but in pieces of data that support their decision.’ Foreign examples such as the moves by US states to legalise cannabis, however, could demonstrate to politicians that ‘it didn’t always end in tears’. 

 Drugs were an issue about which the media, the public and, to a lesser extent, politicians were able to hold conflicting views simultaneously, said chief executive of Ipsos MORI, Ben Page. While drugs came below things like anti-social behaviour and litter in terms of public anxiety in MORI polls, at the top of the list of where people got their information from was the media. 

 People’s priorities were drug supply, he said – which put them in line with policing priorities – while ‘providing long-term treatment, care and support’ for drug users came bottom of the list. The media were ‘not always coherent’, he said, but they were extremely influential. 

 ‘The power of the media is not as great as you think,’ responded writer and broadcaster Vivienne Parry. ‘It disturbs me the way we talk of the public as fools with no independent opinion. Newspapers are mirrors – we choose the newspaper that reflects our opinions.’ Newspapers engaged with their readers through online comments and letters pages and knew their views, she stressed. ‘If you have someone talking about the death of their child from drugs, for example, that’s extremely emotive. And the public’s response tends to be “something must be done”.’ 

 Presenting complex information and arguments in a tabloid context was difficult, she continued, and the press also feared alienating its readers at a time of declining circulations. ‘If they present an evidence-based argument, such as free needles, what they get back is a wave of anger, especially from people who have medical conditions themselves. But should the media be held accountable for what they write? Yes.’ One effective way of doing this was to ‘subject editors to a constant stream of short, concise letters saying “you’ve got this wrong”,’ she pointed out. 

 Proper analysis was ‘tough stuff to sell in a 24/7 communications world’, said broadcaster Roger Graef. ‘Journalists are in default mode these days and they’ll get their stuff off press releases or the wires, because solving the drug problem is a hard issue to think through with those pressures of time.’ The ‘catastrophic’ effects of welfare cuts were also something that editors tended not to engage with, said former home secretary David Blunkett MP, as they rarely had family that were affected by them.

 One of the dangers of policy was that there was ‘no shared starting point’, said Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert. ‘There needs to be much more clarity about what we’re trying to achieve before we talk about how to achieve it, and if you’re going to experiment with things, then the penalty paid in the media has to be lower. It has to be a less politically painful process, and we need to be able to scale things up quickly when they do work.’

 It was vital to take account of all the evidence, even when that evidence was ‘inconvenient,’ said former chief inspector of constabulary, Sir Denis O’Connor. ‘There’s a split between elites and the way they talk about drugs and ordinary folk who don’t read all the reports – policy has to make sense locally as well as nationally.’ Persuading people took a lot of effort but it could be done, he stressed. ‘Arguments need to be set out coherently and honestly, we should have pilots, and they should be properly reported on.’ 

 ‘If we can’t agree on basic statistics, we can’t learn from other parts of the world or what’s been happening here,’ said David Blunkett. ‘If we can agree on what’s made some difference – even if not enough – then we can agree on what can be scaled up.’ Honesty and transparency were crucial, he said. ‘We can have these arguments, but in a democracy we need to have them in a way that we can carry the public with us.’

 There was a view that ‘if only politicians were brave and said what they really thought it would all be all right’, he said. ‘But it’s about creating a wave – as with the Make Poverty History campaign – on which those politicians who are convinceable can ride. It involves a degree of leadership, but if you don’t have people behind you then you won’t pull it off.’  DDN

 Next issue: Roger Howard sums up the work of the UKDPC