How we make drug policy in the UK

The reports from this project have now been published:

How to make drug policy better: key findings from UKDPC research into drug policy governance

Characteristics of good governance: findings from an expert consultation

Essays on the governance of drug policy

Lessons on policy governance: what drug policy can learn from other areas

Background to the project

There has been mounting criticism of the current system for making drug policy over recent years in the UK. In the past the UK led the way in pragmatic, evidence-informed drug policy. However, more recently over the last decade or so, the debate about drug policy has become politically divisive and the role of evidence downgraded. The political ‘yo-yo’ over the reclassification of cannabis after 2000 saw a continuing clash between experts, politicians and some quarters of the press.

We have also seen concern raised about the governance of drug policy with respect to the passing of the 2005 Drugs Act, the sacking of the Chair of ACMD, and the rush to ban mephedrone following a press campaign prior to the 2010 election. Alongside a desire to help those with drug problems recover, these events have coincided with a general toughening on law and order responses. A growing number of leading public figures, ministers and senior public officials on leaving office, call for policy change but, for people in government, it is often claimed that the drug policy issue is one that is ‘toxic’ with those who support debate subject to intense media scrutiny. The result is a stymied and polarised debate between those who ‘shout loudest’.

Nevertheless, we know that some countries (eg Portugal and Czech Republic in Europe) have managed to make progressive changes to their approach to tackling drugs. We also know that other contentious policy areas have dealt with the stalemates caused by  ‘politicisation’ by changing the way policy is developed (the ‘technocratisation’ of certain elements of the process and/or ways to create neutral and cross-party political ‘space’ for dialogue). While to date most of the debate has concerned particular drug policies, we believe there are benefits to be had from looking at the way drug policy is made in the UK and how this helps or hinders policy development. We aim to compare policy making systems in the UK with other countries and policy areas to identify suggestions for positive changes that might lead to more effective policy making processes that can respond to the changing nature and context of drug problems in the 21st Century.

Aims and objectives

The overarching aim of the project was to provide the research foundations and impetus for a constructive political, expert and public dialogue about ways to improve the way we make drug policy, both in the UK and for wider application in other countries.

The specific objectives were to:

1. Identify what appear to be important principles and components of ‘good’ governance arrangements to underpin drug policy development and oversight.

2. Describe current drug policy governance systems within the UK (including each of the devolved administrations) and consider the extent to which they match up to these ‘good’ governance arrangements.

3. Draw lessons from comparative accounts of the relevant approaches to policy governance relating to drug policy in other countries and other policy areas in the UK.

4. Identify key lessons for UK drug policy governance and possible options for change and start a debate around these.

Research activities, outputs and timeline

A.     Development of a ‘good’ governance framework.

This part of the project has involved a high meeting in collaboration with St George’s, Windsor to kick-start the project and the process of identifying key issues for drug policy governance in the UK. This was followed by a modified-Delphi exercise in which a number of international policy experts completed two questionnaires in order to identify what could be considered to be important principles and components of ‘good’ governance of relevance to complex, cross-cutting policy areas, such as drugs. This was then combined with key findings from relevant reports and papers and be synthesised into a ‘good governance’ framework or checklist to be taken forward into the subsequent elements of the research project.

B.      UK drug policy governance systems – mapping and evaluation

This will involve two processes: mapping of the structures and processes involved in drug policy governance throughout the UK, including the devolved governments; and secondly an evaluation of these systems against the ‘good governance’ framework to highlight strengths and weaknesses.

This will be undertaken through a mix of desk research and interviews, both individual and, if appropriate, group interviews with key people representing the important stakeholder groups in each of the countries. These are likely to be a mixture of face-to-face and telephone interviews. Early interviews will focus mainly on the mapping of the processes and structures, while later interviews will focus more on the evaluation element.

We will also commission some drug policy academic experts to write short analytical essay pieces reflecting on some particular issues/ components/ moments that provide case studies of key governance issues and lessons. These together with the other elements of this component of the project will be synthesised to provide a comparative account of the different drug policy governance systems in the UK and a description of the key areas of strength and weakness of these to provide a focus for the next component of the project.

C.      Lessons from other countries and other policy areas

Examples and case studies from other countries will be gathered through a range of mechanisms including a workshop on drug policy governance at the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy conference in May 2012. Individual and, if appropriate, group interviews will be conducted with key people to develop case study examples of good practice in drug policy governance in other countries. Rather than seeking to provide complete descriptions of governance systems in different countries these will be targeted on specific elements of governance that are seen as weak in the UK and conducted more effectively elsewhere. The major EU-funded project, ALICE RAP, may also contribute case studies. We will be working with the Institute for Government to identify lessons from other policy areas. These again would be targeted at particular components of governance

Drawing on all these materials we will identify lessons for drug policy governance in the UK from other countries and policy areas, highlighting alternative models for different aspects of governance that might address weaknesses in the current systems. This will be completed by the end of September 2012.

D.     Identification and dissemination of implications for UK drug policy governance

Finally we will involve senior people from all administrations to review the findings from the project and pull out the lessons, implications and options for UK drug policy governance. These will contribute to a final report for publication around the end of the year.

Roger Howard, UKDPC Chief Executive, explains the context and aims of the project in the following interview:

How we make Drug Policy in the UK – Time for a Rethink?


Search our Findings documents