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After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation


Drug prohibition in various forms has been in place for over 100 years now, its historical roots traceable back to the temperance movement. This punitive criminal justice-led approach, premised on the understandable but simplistic concept that drugs are a threat, therefore we must fight them, and thence that drugs are bad, therefore we must prohibit them, was enshrined as global policy under the UN single convention on drugs 1961. The UK’s domestic response was the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which, 39 years on, remains the central plank of UK drug policy.

For a policy that has the very specific aim of creating a ‘drug-free’ society, criminalising drug production, supply and possession has been a remarkable failure on its own terms. Consistently under the legislation, use and related harms have risen, drugs have become cheaper and more available, and illicit production has easily met the growing demand.

Worse still, this policy approach, (one that we must remember is fantastically and increasingly expensive), has delivered a series of catastrophic consequences associated with the sprawling international illicit trade controlled by violent criminal entrepreneurs, now turning over in the region of $300 billion each year, around five billion pounds a year in the UK alone.

The criminal justice community, despite sitting centre stage amidst this unfolding legal and policy disaster, has been remarkably unengaged in the reform debate, the occasional outspoken individuals rarely if ever matched by any concerted efforts by the many professional bodies in the field. This silence is no longer a tenable position; it gives tacit support for a demonstrably failing policy and legal infrastructure. Prohibition is not immutable; it is a policy choice.

On the domestic front this prohibition-fuelled crime has placed an intolerable burden on all tiers of the criminal justice system. The prisons crisis - with over half of prisoners inside for drug, or drug-related offending – being the most high profile, but the same stress being carried through the police, courts and probation systems.

The vast sums generated by the illicit trade, particularly in producer and transit countries, are frequently used to corrupt state institutions, police, judiciary, and politics, as well as providing a ready source of funding for armed insurgency (fuelling civil war in Colombia for example) and terrorism (most obviously the Taliban) that can in turn become a very real domestic UK threat.
It is vital not to forget that our domestic response to drugs, not the use of drugs per se, is inadvertently helping to destabilise countries across the world. Widespread human rights abuses and environmental destruction in sensitive ecosystems can be added to litany of prohibition’s disastrous secondary consequences.

Much of this analysis will be of little surprise – there is a growing consensus that the ‘War on Drugs’ has been a counterproductive failure. In the UK we have seen a succession of thoughtful and detailed analysis emerging form high level policy forums highlighting precisely this including: The Police Foundation (2000), The Home Affairs Select Committee (2002), The Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit Drugs Report (2003), The Royal Society of Arts (2006), The UKDPC (2007).

A historical stumbling block in the debate has been the fact that no clear vision of a post prohibition world has been available. The question ‘how would it work?’ has thus been met with a lack of clarity, with myths and misrepresentations filling the void.
Transform Drug Policy Foundation argues the choice is clear; drug markets can remain in the hands of organised criminals and street dealers or they can be controlled and regulated by the government. There is no third option under which there are no drugs in society. Therefore we must choose the policy approach that delivers the best outcomes from our limited criminal justice and public health resources; in terms of minimising harms associated with drug production supply and use. The evidence from the failure of prohibition demands that we meaningfully explore the options for legal regulation.

Transform has now produced a detailed discussion of how the legal regulation of drug markets could operate, proposing specific models for a range of currently illicit drug products, and providing the rationale behind them.

‘After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’ considers the menu of options for controls over products (dosage, preparation, price and packaging), vendors (licensing, vetting and training requirements), outlets (location, outlet density, appearance), who has access (age controls, licensed buyers) and where and when drugs can be consumed. It then rationally explores options for different drugs and different using populations to suggest the regulatory models that will deliver the best outcomes on key health and wellbeing indicators. Lessons are drawn from successes and failings with alcohol and tobacco regulation in the UK and beyond, as well as controls over pharmaceutical drugs and other risky products and activities that are regulated by government.

Moves toward legal regulation of drug markets would naturally be phased in cautiously over a number of years, with close evaluation and monitoring of impacts and any unintended consequences. A flexible range of regulatory tools would also be applied differentially across the spectrum of products, with the more restrictive controls deployed for more risky drugs or drug preparations, and, less restrictive controls for lower risk products. If implemented intelligently such an approach holds the potential to not only reduce harms associated with patterns of consumption as they currently exist but, in the longer term to encourage patterns of use to move towards safer products, safer behaviours, and safer using environments – the precise opposite of what has happened under prohibition.


Five basic models are proposed; medical prescription and supervised using venues for the highest risk drugs and most problematic users; a specialist pharmacist sales model, combined with named/licensed user access and volume sales rationing for mid-risk drugs, such as amphetamines, powder cocaine, and ecstasy; various forms of licensed retail, and licensed premises for sale and consumption (familiar with pubs and Dutch-style cannabis coffee shops); and unlicensed sales for the least risky products such as caffeine drinks, or coca tea.

Regulation cannot produce a drug free world or indeed a harm free world – in the short term it can only seek to reduce the problems that stem from prohibition and the illicit trade it has created. Neither can it address the underlying drivers of problematic drug use although it is argued it would create a far better environment for doing so in the future, by removing political obstacles and moving to a more rational evidence-based footing, and by freeing up limited drug-policy resources for proven public health interventions.

Unfortunately, as the sacking (as ACMD chair) of Professor David Nutt shows, there remains resistance from some politicians to accept evidence of what actually works and an unwillingness to engage in this debate. We believe the way forward is through the UK Government commissioning a comprehensive Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA). An Impact Assessment would compare the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of current policy, and all the alternatives, at the national level, and the UN should carry out a similar exercise at international level to incorporate impacts on producer and transit countries.

To ensure this process is one behind which everyone genuinely interested in evidence-based policy can unite, the alternatives modelled need to range from stepping up prohibition, leaving things as they are, through Portuguese-style decriminalisation, to legal regulation, for which Blueprint could be a guide. In the UK, it is now a statutory requirement for all new legislation to undergo an Impact Assessment before it comes before Parliament, but this was not the case when the MDA was enacted. As we stated during a private meeting with the Prime Minister, we believe it is time to correct that anomaly.

Of course, the devil is in the detail and inevitably different social environments will require different approaches in response to the specific challenges they face. The book does not seek to provide all the answers – but rather to move the debate beyond ‘should we end the drug war?’ to ’what will the world look like after the war on drugs’? Criminal Justice professionals who work daily on the coal face of the drug war, and who can bear witness to its consequences at first hand, represent a vital expert voice of reason in this debate, and we hope this book will provide a basis for more proactive engagement. Please contact us to find out more.

‘After the War on Drugs; Blueprint for Regulation’ available in hard copy or free pdf download from








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