Drug Policy

Drugs policy is best approached as being part of a complex systems that includes several different groups of drug users, criminals producing and supplying drugs, law enforcement agencies, golobal trade, public opinion, the media and politicians. The system has been largely shaped by the prohibitionist policy that has been in force for more than 40 years; and it is the entire system that generates the negative outcomes that harm individuals and communities.

Most people, including journalists and politicians, want simple, easily communicated, solutions to difficult problems such as drug use. The trouble is that simple solutions have to ignore most of the complexity within the actual system, with the result that policies based on a simple approach generate unintended outcomes. There is a mismatch between the way that the politician or policy maker assumes the world works and how it actually works and it is this mismatch that produces the surprises - the unintended consequences.

It is widely acknowledged that drug policy has not achieved its declared aims, of reducing drug use, and has also generated many unintended consequences with detrimental outcomes. These detrimental outcomes are attributed to the use of drugs (not to the policies) which in turn fosters a negative view of drugs and drug users. These negative views lead the public and media to support tougher drug policies, which reinforces the prohibitionist approach which in turn generates more detrimental unintended consequences.

In systems terms this is a feedback loop, one that reinforces itself. The only way to escape from such feedback loops is to break one of the links in the loop. One of the key links is the strong belief that nothing good ever comes from the use of drugs. There is widespread belief that whilst people may have fun in the short term, in the long term drug use undermines peoples’ lives. The material on this website directly challenges that set of beliefs. The accounts here are written by successful professional people (which is why the income band of each contributor is shown) who have had their lives and relationships profoundly affected for the better by one or more drug experiences. The point is that psychoactive drugs are powerful agents that can be used in good and bad ways, ways that enhance people’s lives or ways that destroy them. It is only by breaking out of the negative mindset associated with drug use that other policy options can even be considered. 

There are other ways in which the feedback loop can be challenged, and these are described in detail in the Demos pamphlet Being Real on Drugs. One challenge is achieved by questioning the assumed direction of causation, for example between drug use and mental illness. It turns out that in many cases drugs are used by people with a pre-existing mental ailment as a form of self medication. The difficulty is that the combination of drugs and mental illness can lead to severe addiction from which it is very hard to help the individual recover.

The point of using a systems approach is to understand how the complex set of interactions around drug use, drug policy, law enforcement and young people’s behaviour that creates a system that has outcomes no one wants. A successful systems analysis enables the outcomes to be understood without casting anyone into malevolent or incompetent roles. It is the combination of different ways of viewing the world and the complexity of the interactions that explains how the system functions. This understanding also enables those involved to see ‘how we are doing this to ourselves’ rather than being the victims of other actors in the system. It is only by seeing our role in creating the mess that we reclaim the power to do something about the situation. In this case a key step is to ditch the stereotypes and myths around drugs and to understand the multiplicity of causes that create the effects we wish to avoid. It is not a question of being hard or soft on drugs, it is all about being real on drugs.