The UK heroin trade: what is the problem?
Jake Chapman gave us a particularly illuminating example of this complexity: One central aspect of drugs policy in the UK is ‘supply-side intervention’; disrupting the heroin trade by seizing drugs at borders, and arresting 'upstream' dealers and traffickers (this contrasts with ‘demand-side’ interventions such as drug-treatment or sentencing of drug-users). Jake argued that although such supply-side interventions address one aspect of the problem(s) of heroin misuse (there’s less heroin on the street, and it’s more difficult to come by), they actually worsen other problems. A disrupted supply of heroin may, if it causes higher prices, lead to higher rates of drug-related acquisitive crime, as addicts need more money to feed their habits. Or, it may lead to dealers cutting heroin with more impurities, exacerbating immediate health problems for addicts, and increasing the risk of overdoses once a purer supply of heroin subsequently becomes available to addicts whose opiate-tolerance has been weakened by impure heroin.
This isn’t to say, of course, that ‘the answer’ to the problem of heroin misuse is to cease supply-side interventions. In Connecting the Dots, we’re not aiming to make such policy-suggestions. Rather, we aim to take a step back from the policy issues and give an account of the problem that foregrounds its complexity, to emphasise the difficulties in, and the necessity of, adopting a ‘big-picture’ approach to the problem, which cuts across policy-area boundaries. Any effective attempt to manage the problem must coordinate a broad-range of policy areas, from education , employment and housing, to healthcare and the criminal justice system, to international development (The near-anarchy and severe poverty in Afghanistan has contributed to it becoming the global centre of opium production).
So, there’s plenty of dots that need to be connected. But we also want to look at another aspect of the ‘wickedness’ of the problems of heroin misuse; the intractable disagreements over the problem formulation. The UK’s drug-policy is sometimes characterised as being ‘crime-led, treatment-driven’. Criminal proceedings are brought against those who possess and deal drugs (and many heroin addicts are ‘user-dealers’), but the focus of many sentences is coercively imposed drug treatment, often through Drug Rehabilitation Requirements (DRRs), a subset of community sentences.
Switzerland, however, has a very different approach to the problem. Just last weekend, a referendum was passed in support of the heroin prescription programme, first trialed in 1994, under which doctors have provided injectable heroin to addicts. In Switzerland, then, heroin misuse is framed as more of a healthcare problem than a criminal problem, in contrast to the UK (indeed, some government figures have recently argued that the UK’s policy doesn’t go far enough: a 2003 Strategy Unit paper called for heroin use to be criminalised).
Again, our aim in this project isn’t to argue for one side in the debates over decriminilisation. Rather, we want to look at the different assumptions underlying these disagreements; do the divergent conclusions stem from different formulations of what the problem is? These disagreements may be over whether reducing drug use, or drug-harms, or drug-related crime should be the focus of drugs policy; and over which should take priority when these aims conflict. These debates may in turn be rooted in disagreements over questions such as the legitimacy of paternalistic state action, whether drug-use is intrinsically bad, and moral disagreements over the appropriateness of using criminal law to ‘send’ public-health messages. There may also be disagreements over the formulation of aspects of the problem; for example, just what is to count as ‘drug-related’ crime: all crimes in which drugs were a motivating/contributory factor, or crimes which are carried out primarily because of a need for, or the effects of, drugs?
There is, then, great scope for deep and broad disagreement over the problem formulation. In a sense, parties to the debate over drugs policy may not be disagreeing about the same problem at all, and so one group's solution may be another's tragedy. This is a characteristic of many wicked problems, from social deprivation to climate change mitigation. We hope to tease out some of the main faultlines of the disagreements over problem-formulation in the case of the UK heroin trade, and offer some suggestions as to how noting these intractable disagreements over what the problem is should inform the policy-making and policy-enacting process.