10 March 2000 - 12 March 2000

International action on illegal drugs

Chair: Mr Keith Hellawell QPM

Over the weekend of 10-12 March 2000 we revisited a problem which we had last looked at at Ditchley in 1994.  On this occasion, however, we omitted from our considerations tobacco and alcohol, and concentrated on international action on illegal drugs.

We examined the problem from all the usual angles:  the supply side;  demand;  social and economic consequences;  the policies currently in force, and what might be done to improve them.  The discussion was wide-ranging, drawing on the broad range of experience and expertise at the Conference.  And even if ideological differences of opinion created difficulty in agreeing on the best way forward, at least the alternatives and costs, both material and personal, were well aired.

The question of supply occupied a good deal of our time and was one area where we found some degree of consensus.  We saw the reasons for supply, in large quantities, of illegal drugs, in particular, heroin and cocaine, as being fairly straightforward.  Criminals were interested in making money.  They treated drugs as a commodity which was cheap to produce but which retailed to the end consumer at many times the price of production and transportation.  Efforts to limit production had had some success, for example in Bolivia.  70/80% of cocaine and heroin were now produced in two countries, Columbia and Afghanistan.  But those with experience of enforcement warned that success in eradication, or interception of supply, appeared to have relatively little impact either on price or availability of drugs at street level, or on the leaders of the big international criminal gangs.  Even ability to confiscate revenues through access to bank deposits, although welcome and a source of funding for drug-related programmes, seemed to have only marginal effect.  What really worried the drug barons was the threat of arrest, extradition and incarceration.

Our attention was also drawn to the fact that although the supply of cannabis, heroin and cocaine was still the main problem, amphetamines and drugs like ecstasy were fast catching up.  The EU area was developing into a major producer of amphetamines.  It was already a major exporter of pre-cursors like potassium pomanganate.  We needed to adjust our view of the threat as being mainly from external producers using increasingly sophisticated supply routes into rich areas like North America and Europe, to take account of this burgeoning domestic production. 

We looked briefly at the possibility of reducing the illicit supply of opium by channelling production into the licit medical market.  Since 80% of the licit production of opium for morphine was taken by ten countries, we wondered whether it might be possible to use the same licensing procedures to open up a large legal market in the many countries which did not at the moment purchase any licit supply of the drug.  This might have the effect of diverting illicit production into controlled licit production, somewhat on the model of the US relationship with producers in Turkey.  We agreed that while licensing and the possibility of supply expanding to meet both the new licit, as well as the old illicit, demand would need careful examination, there might be clear benefits from such a system and that it deserved further study by experts.

The discussion of supply took us into a debate about statistics;  an essential tool in estimating the size of the problem and the degree of success, or failure, of our policies. We agreed that without reasonably reliable statistics, policy makers would be operating in a vacuum.  It soon emerged however that assembling reliable statistics was neither easy nor cheap.  The United States alone had a large budget for collecting statistical data.  It also had the longest running surveys which could indicate trends in illegal drug use together with some of the social factors most commonly associated with it.  Since, however, we were dealing with an illegal activity for which law enforcement or hospital admissions figures were probably the most reliable, there was inevitably a certain ambivalence about the data with which policy makers were working.  Two other points were made.  Small countries could not afford to collect as much data as they would wish.  Every dollar spent on collection was usually a dollar less on prevention or treatment.  In addition, given the fuzziness of some of the data, it was frequently possible to interpret it in a number of ways.  It seemed that few things bedevilled discussion of drugs policy more than selective quotation, or differing interpretation, of the statistics.  A plea was made for a non-governmental body to be set up to provide impartial analyses of the data available.

We also looked in some depth at the demand side of the equation:  this was said to receive less than one tenth of the resources devoted to law enforcement.  Fundamental questions were raised as to the nature of our societies which led so many young people to turn to drugs.  The most frequent answer to this rather existential question was the prosaic – “Give them something else to do – in the first instance, a job”.  We were urged to differentiate between the groups who took illegal drugs, on the grounds that there was a qualitative difference between the small number who were long-term addicts to eg the far greater number who experimented with drugs for recreational purposes.  We were reminded that not all drug use led to disaffection, disengagement and addiction.  Drug use in society was not one seamless problem but different sub-sets of issues, all of which needed different solutions.

Indications of demand and incidence of use were quoted.  In the US there had hardly been a drug problem in the 1930s.  Now the number of drug offenders in jail was equal to the whole prison population in the USA in the 1970s.  In the UK a very high percentage of those arrested were subsequently found to have traces of illegal drugs in their blood.  Equally, on the crime front it appeared that a relatively small number of offenders committed a disproportionate number of thefts and crimes of violence to pay for their habit.

Our discussion of policy options exposed a variety of points of view.  We noted that there were wide cultural differences in attitudes to the use of drugs.  Some societies had long experience in their use and did not regard them as anti-social.  In many western societies, the emphasis on consumer choice and individual civil and human rights had resulted in acquittals, at least as far as possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use was concerned.  In Germany, the Supreme Court recently ruled that it was unconstitutional to prohibit the possession of cannabis for personal use.  British representatives warned that the introduction in October of the European Charter of Human Rights into British legislation could also affect decisions in British Courts. 

How to deal with cannabis use provoked perhaps the clearest division of views.  Some voices were raised for decriminalisation coupled with a strong system of regulation for cannabis, while retaining full criminal sanctions against hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.  It was asserted that, regardless of the law, cannabis was widely available and that, in a number of countries, a significant section of society, including many young people, did not regard smoking cannabis as any more harmful or anti-social than drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco.  It would be better to base policy on an assessment of the actual harm done, both individually and collectively, by any particular drug.  Anti-smoking and drink-driving campaigns had demonstrated that legalisation was not equivalent to acceptability.  To maintain an undifferentiated policy of criminalisation and prosecution, it was argued, risked the policy being flouted on an ever-wider scale.  Against that it was argued strongly that cannabis did indeed cause real damage to health, and could be a killer in its own right.  Whether or not it was a “gateway” drug was hotly disputed but there was little doubt that countries like Holland, which had decriminalised cannabis, had created a tolerant drug culture which went much wider than cannabis.  Experience in the USA showed that tolerance of  cannabis could have far-reaching effects particularly on young people.  Liberal drugs policies in Baltimore, for example, had apparently had a serious effect on the community, with five times the national average of deaths from overdose, one heroin addict for every seventeen citizens, and six times the national homicide rate.

If there was a difference of view on cannabis there was agreement on the seriousness of the criminal effects of the drug trade.  The scale of the wealth accumulated by major narco-criminals was capable of destabilising developed as well as developing countries.  In addition, the passage of drugs across a country was not a neutral event.  Inevitably some drugs leaked out along the trade route in the form of bribes or payment for services.  Transit countries quickly found themselves confronted by a domestic drug problem, sometimes of considerable proportions.

We looked at the role of the Criminal Justice System in deterring illegal use as well as an opportunity to put offenders on a course where, through treatment and rehabilitation, they were given a chance of not re-offending.  The record of Drugs Courts in the US was compared to embryonic moves in the same direction in the UK:  the “catch and cure” approach.  Suspended sentences with compulsory testing to ensure compliance had produced good results (Compulsory drug testing in the US and UK armed forces had been successful in reducing dramatically the incidence of illegal drug use).  But there was concern that medical treatment was not available quickly enough or that, at times, it was not available at all.  The Health Service in the UK was over-stretched and still tended to give priority to treatment of users of other drugs like tobacco and alcohol which were 50 and 15 times more likely to cause death than illegal drugs.

There was wide agreement that no single policy (“magic bullet”) would bring success in controlling the use of illegal drugs.  Given the strong link between social deprivation and drug misuse there was a need for greater coordination of action in fields as diverse as education, housing, social security, employment, enforcement, health and rehabilitation.  To achieve this required a change in traditional departmental attitudes and demarcation lines.  If wide coordination was necessary on the domestic front, the same was true externally.  Illegal drugs presented an international problem for which international cooperation held the only chance of success.  At present many of the international instruments and agencies were relatively weak.  The risks and dangers involved placed a premium on trust and personal contact, which at present was most easily expressed in bilateral, rather than multilateral, cooperation.  The hope was expressed that multilateral arrangements like Europol would become more effective in time and that barriers to cross-border operations by police could be removed.  That apart, if societal attitudes were to change, we recognised that a clear and unequivocal signal had to be sent about the dangers of illegal drugs coupled with a consistent response to those who were involved with them.  Politicians would need to keep their nerve in the face of an increasingly vocal civil liberty lobby.  And the criminal justice system would need new powers to take on the international criminal networks at the root of the supply problem.  All these elements needed to be reconciled in a long-term strategy, and the costs of its implementation would be high.

The majority view at the conference was in favour of zero-tolerance.  But it was clear that our present policies would be judged by their results.  It they did not live up to expectations there would certainly be material for another Ditchley Conference in a few years time.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman:  Mr Keith Hellawell QPM
UK Anti-Drugs Co-ordinator

Dr Toni Makkai

Senior Research Analyst, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra

Mr Reid Morden

Managing Director, Kroll Associates
Mr Ian Potter
Assistant Deputy Minister, Health Promotion & Programs, Health Canada, Ottawa

Mrs Gabriele Gordon

Senior Prosecutor, Ministry of Justice and for European Affairs in the State of Brandenberg, Potsdam

Detective Chief Superintendent Stuart Cameron-Waller

Director, Regional Co-ordination and Development

Professor Philip T Bean

Professor of Criminology, Loughborough University
Ms Rachel Briggs
Foreign Policy Centre
Mr Jon Bright
Head, New Deal for Communities Unit, Department of Employment, Transport and the Regions
Mr William Fittall
Director, Crime Reduction and Community Programmes, Home Office
Professor A Hamid Ghodse CBE
Chairman, Department of Addictive Behaviour and Psychological Medicine, St George’s Hospital Medical
School, University of London
Mr Mike Goodman 
Director, Release
Professor Roger Graef
Writer, film maker, broadcaster and criminologist
Mr John Graham
Senior Researcher and policy adviser, Social Exclusion Unit, Cabinet Office
His Honour Judge Hammond
Circuit Judge, Crown Court of Manchester
Mr Mohammad Haroon
Cancer Prevention and Substance Misuse, Department of Health
Major Andrew Hart R IRISH
Staff Officer responsible for Army substance misuse policy
Mr Roger Howard
Chief Executive, Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence
Mr Simon Jenkins
The Times
Mr Ben Jupp
Senior researcher, DEMOS
Detective Superintendent Rob Ormsby
National Crime Squad
Mr Will Palin
Deputy Director, National Drug Prevention Alliance
Mr Nigel Parker
Legal Adviser, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Ms Melanie Phillips
Sunday Times
Mr Anthony Rawsthorne
Director Customs Policy, HM Customs and Excise
Mr David Rigal
Director, ADFAM National (a helpline charity for friends and families of drug users)
Detective Inspector Ian Robinson
Force Drugs Co-ordinator, Thames Valley Police
Mr Michael Ryder
Head, Drugs and International Crime Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mr Robin Searle
Assistant Chief Constable, Nottinghamshire Police
Gisela Stuart MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health, Department of Health
Mr Noel Towe
Social Affairs and Health, Local Government Association

Mr Steven W Casteel

Chief of Intelligence, US Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration
Professor Thomas A Constantine
Public Service Professor, State University of New York, University at Albany
The Hon Charles B DeWitt
Co-owner, Lafayette Group
Mr Sanford D Garelik
Former Chief, New York City Police Department
Mr Neal Garelik
President, Excel Security Corp
Professor James B Jacobs
Professor of Law and Director, Center for Research in Crime and Justice, New York University School of Law
The Honorable Jefferson B Sessions III
United States Senator, Alabama