A problem of supply
by Eugene Grant
The Home Secretary’s controversial move to sack Professor David Nutt added fuel to the fire of a hot and most volatile debate: drugs policy. The debate itself is age-old; yet, there is still much opportunity, and indeed desperate need, for a fresh approach – something which is soon to be pursued by Demos’s new project Taking Drugs Seriously.
Up to now, much of the debate has been dominated by the ‘wars on drugs’ discourse. The global reach of such ‘wars’ is indisputable: they are designed and developed in places like Washington and Whitehall; fought out in the jungles of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia; in the fields of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Myanmar; in the streets of Mexico city, New York, London and L.A.
Yet, the efficacy of these ‘wars’ (and here I would question how you can wage war on a market) is far less apparent, if not almost invisible. Take cocaine as an example: in 2007 the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention showed there to be some 14 million users of the drug worldwide1. While ongoing wars on drugs rage across South America, costing billions of dollars and untold lives, cocaine production (not to be confused with coca production) has remained relatively stable2. Indeed, analysts have pointed out that cocaine use is actively growing in Europe and other parts of the world3.
The problem, I would suggest, lies with the myopic focus on supply-side policies. This is not to say that efforts to eliminate the supply of drugs have no impact at all, but – as Al Capone so aptly demonstrated during prohibition – where there are those who continue to demand a product, there will always be those who are willing to supply it.
Supply-side policies can have serious side-effects. Supply will never be eradicated; but, should supplies of drugs like crack or cocaine drop – and demand stay the same (if not rise) – then prices go up. This not only makes the drug more profitable but can, in turn, fuel further violent, acquisitive crime as addicts need more money to afford higher prices4. There are also – as is outlined in our forthcoming pamphlet – significant health risks: reducing supplies means drugs are ‘cut’ with more, often dangerous, additives5.
What, then, would happen in a world where drugs are regulated as opposed to criminalised? Would this allow us to open a new ‘front’ on the drugs war – one that targets demand and problems of addiction instead of focusing on prices and supply? What are the objectives of drugs policy? To make drugs less available? To make them less profitable? Or is to make our societies safer? In attempting to visualise a world in which the supply of drugs is legal but closely controlled, Demos’s new project may well be able to address these crucial questions and allow us to finally move above and beyond tried, tired, and weary supply-side discourses, policies, and wars they produce.
1 UNODCP 2007 World Drug Report 2007 Vienna, Austria: Vienna International Centre pp. 82
2 Ibid p. 7
3 The Economist March 7th 2009 ‘How to stop the drug wars’ in Free range: a selection of articles from The Economist pp. 4
4 Piper, B. 2007 October 24th ‘Getting real about the economics of cocaine’ – AlterNet – DrugReporter Available from http://www.alternet.org/drugreporter/65679 (accessed 04.05.2008)
5 Chapman, J. et al 2009 Connecting the Dots London, UK: Demos pp. 29 (forthcoming)