Drugs strategy: empty rhetoric or radical reform?

UK Policy Community

Drugs strategy: empty rhetoric or radical reform?

Posted on: 8th December 2021
Harvey Redgrave
Senior Policy Advisor, Home Affairs

On Monday the government announced a new 10 year drugs plan to ‘cut crime and save lives’. The strategy was pre-briefed in familiar language: an ‘all-out war on drugs’ to halt the ‘pernicious’ trade by cutting off supply chains and bearing down on drug gangs. Boris Johnson even managed to get a photo op standing alongside officers conducting dawn raids. (Incidentally, he also did so breaking the long-established convention that politicians do not wear police branded uniform, but that’s an argument for another day).

The preamble to the plan lays bare the scale of the supply problem: the availability of drugs is higher than ever before, fuelling rises in the purity of heroin and crack cocaine (not to mention falling prices). As well as being an outlier for consumption of cocaine, the UK is now, by the government’s own admission, ‘Europe’s largest heroin market and a target for international drug trafficking gangs’.

Yet in spite of all the tough-sounding headlines, the enforcement measures that actually appear in the plan are strangely anemic. There are commitments to ‘restrict upstream flow’, ‘secure the border’, ‘roll up county lines’ and ‘go after the money’ - but little detail about exactly how these things will be achieved. Mostly it amounts to continuing a list of things that are already happening.

For example, one of the headline measures to ‘restrict upstream flow’ involves ‘supporting the National Crime Agency’s (NCA) International Liaison Officer network’ to stop drugs coming to the UK in the first place. Supporting staff to do their job is the absolute minimum most people would expect of the Home Office - and certainly falls short of an ambitious new policy pledge.

The outcome measures are similarly vague: there is a commitment to reduce drug related crime and homicide and to increase drug trafficking convictions but no detail on by how much or over what timescale. The commitment to close ‘over 2,000 county lines’ also feels underwhelming, given the government claims to have shut down 1,500 of such lines since 2019.

The truth is that on most measures of enforcement, until recently trends have been heading in the wrong direction, with 30 per cent fewer charges and convictions for drug trafficking offences and fewer drugs being seized than was the case in 2010, even if there has been a slight uptick over the past year (see chart).

Given those prevailing headwinds it is hard to see how the measures set out in Monday’s plan will drive a step change in performance.

Ironically, the bit of the plan that was the most substantive - the section focused on drug treatment - was largely brushed under the carpet in the government’s own communications. The plan essentially delivers on the recommendations of Dame Carol Black’s independent review, which called for a substantial increase in treatment and recovery services, with an additional £780m of spending over the next three years to ramp up capacity (which admittedly simply brings us back to a level roughly equivalent to that which the Conservatives inherited in 2010).

This might seem unusual. Normally mid-term governments are keen to trumpet big increases in spending, but drugs is an area where ‘good policy’ doesn’t always cohere with ‘good politics’. Ministers will know that there is strong evidence that improving access to treatment and recovery services is one of the most efficient ways to reduce the health and crime harms associated with drugs (Dame Carol Black’s review suggests a ‘benefit cost ratio of 3.7 over 3 years for every £ spent). But they will be sensitive to the criticism that they are ‘rewarding bad behaviour’, by prioritising taxpayers’ hard earned cash on supporting drug addicts, rather than doing more to ensure they are punished for their crimes.

Its not all about cash, of course. In all, Black came up with 32 recommendations including the creation of a central Drugs Unit, which would establish a ‘National Outcomes Framework’ coordinate work across government and hold departments to account. That Unit has actually been operational since July. If it leads to a more joined up approach to policymaking, it already represents a significant step forwards, with arguably more potential than the entire Drugs Strategy to tackle a key problem that has bedevilled drugs policy - siloed working in Whitehall.

So, is this strategy empty rhetoric or does it actually represent substantive reform? The truth is a bit of both. The enforcement measures appear to have been over-briefed, with little evidence that there is anything here that will reverse long-term declines in arrests, charges, convictions and seizures. But this represents a substantial package of new investment to reduce demand through better treatment and recovery services.

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