Illegal Drugs Get Cheaper, More Potent

Sometimes my work as a drug policy analyst is really hard to explain to my non-drug policy friends. Most of the research findings about drug policy that I deal with on a daily basis fly in the face of conventional wisdom about drugs, drug users and drug laws. One of these pieces of conventional wisdom taught routinely to Canadian high school students is that drug law enforcement is necessary to keep the supply of illegal drug under control, and to discourage young people especially, from using these drugs.

Change in estimated heroin price and purity in the context of the annual drug control budget in the United States. Source: Global Commission on Drug Policy
Change in estimated heroin price and purity in the context of the annual drug control budget in the United States. Source: Global Commission on Drug Policy

As any of you in the field of drug policy reform know, despite the claims by police, drugs are now more available, higher purity and more potent than they were 20 years ago. So says a recent publication in the British Journal of Medicine Open, entitled, “The temporal relationship between drug supply indicators: An audit of international government surveillance systems.” Whew that’s mouthful. Authors of this study at the BC based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy culled from two decades (1990 to 2010) of government databases on illegal drug supply, and found the supply of major illegal drugs has (with a few exceptions) increased. With the exception of powder cocaine, the purity and/or potency of illegal drugs in the U.S. generally increased. Their findings also confirm that the price of illegal drugs generally decreased.

These findings once again throw into question the effectiveness of current government drug policies that emphasize supply reduction at the expense of other goals. These deficiencies are aptly illustrated by the World Drug Report, an annual publication of the United Nations Office on drugs and Crime that relies on reports of police drug seizures (i.e. size and estimates of drugs found in raids) along with police-based estimates of crop size (i.e. for cannabis and coca) to evaluate the effectiveness of drug policies. The larger the seizure, the more enforcement officials assert the effectiveness of their approaches.  But the findings described above suggest that no matter how hard we try to apply supply-side drug enforcement, drugs are still widely available, cheap and increasingly potent.

As the authors of this study suggest, new measures of the success of drug policies are urgently needed. Rather than using measures of drug supply, its time for governments to assess the effectiveness of their drug policies by using indicators of drug-related harm like overdoses, rates of blood-borne disease transmission (i.e. HIV or Hep C) and emergency room visits…you get the picture. And as the Global Commission on Drug Policy reports, supply-side drug enforcement actually exacerbates the problem of drugs by driving people away from supports and services, at the same time as it creates a growing underground market in drugs.

Sounds sensible, but Canada has poor quality data for measuring the health of people who use drugs. The Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey is small and relies on the use of land-lines. There’s no national level data on drug overdoses like there is in the U.S. This lack of data seemingly reinforces the proposition that if you can’t count it, it’s not a problem.

We do know how many people are arrested for drug crimes (57,000 plus for cannabis possession in 2012). But these measures only tell us about police priorities, though they do suggest that the criminalization of people who use drugs is a major way Canada attempts to limit drug use – an approach shown to be less than effective at stopping drug use and a key driver of stigma and discrimination.

So it’s time for all of us to sit down with our friends and family and explain that the conventional maxims of drug policy fail to keep us safe, do not limit the supply of drugs and overlook the health and other needs of people who use drugs.  Clearly it’s time for a new approach.

About Connie Carter

Connie Carter, Ph.D. is the Senior Policy Analyst at the CDPC and a graduate of the UVIC Department of Sociology. She received a Bombardier Fellowship for her work analyzing citizen groups and government policy-makers as they responded to the issue of crystal meth use in BC in the early 2000s.