By Mike Trace, Consultation Event Drugs Panel Chair is Chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC). Previous roles include UK Deputy Drug-Czar to Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chairman of the European Monitoring Centre on Drug & Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

In June 2013, we enjoyed a high level workshop looking at the real science of drug addiction and its implications for policy-making. We heard evidence from some of the world’s foremost experts, also on other substance addictions, that would point to urgent changes required in some of the policies and programmes that have characterised international drug control for the last century:

Social and ethnographic studies have demonstrated that the reasons why young people first decide to take illegal drugs, and why experimentation turns into regular use, are grounded in fashion, peer pressure, attitudes to risk, and socio-economic conditions. The legal status of the preferred substance and the risk of arrest and punishment do not seem to have a significant impact on the number of young people who use drugs. But the dominant strategy used by many governments in an attempt to reduce demand for drugs is to declare them to be prohibited and to arrest and punish those caught in possession in an attempt to deter potential users from becoming involved. Whatever the other pros and cons of a punishment strategy, it cannot be expected to reduce demand at a population level.

Similarly, a wide body of evidence now exists regarding the impact of drug education and prevention programmes on population levels of drug use. Some of these studies show that well designed programmes can have an impact on knowledge, attitudes, and age of first initiation of some participants. But no specific drug prevention or education programme has ever registered a significant or sustained impact on overall levels of drug use amongst the target population. Yet, this remains the prime objective of most government prevention programmes – to reduce overall use – and a high proportion of programmes still rely heavily on simple risk and fear messages in the hope that they will deter potential users.

Our understanding of the nature of addiction has increased massively in recent years. The neurological processes that encourage repeat use and dependence, and their interaction with psychological and social factors, can increasingly be defined and observed, and their complexity acknowledged. These scientific breakthroughs are stimulating broad debates around the nature of addiction and free will, but it is clear that drug dependence does have a physical and neurological basis. Some government interventions – particularly those that rely on coercion and punishment – are therefore rendered invalid. The idea that an individual struggling with drug dependence will be able to overcome the condition as a result of an increase in the harshness of their environment, or by being exposed to further humiliation and abuse, has rightly been rejected by the academic and professional communities, and the United Nations.

In a slightly different field, all assessments of the scale and nature of the international market in illicit drugs have shown that, despite all efforts and operational achievements in eradicating crops and seizing drug shipments, the levels of supply continue to be driven by demand for specific commodities. The predominant logic for international drug control for a century has been that the constriction of supply of specific substances would lead to the stifling, and eventual disappearance, of the market. While it may be possible to temporarily limit the availability of specific drugs in specific (particularly emerging) markets, it is clear that when demand for illicit drugs is established, the potential for trading profit ensures that a method of supply is found, and where one route is disrupted, another (perhaps with more consequential harms) replaces it.

In such a complex field, informed by so many academic and scientific disciplines, it is unlikely that future policy decisions will ever be able to claim to be purely science and evidence based. But as SciCom’s high-level consultation event clearly evidenced, even a limited review of current scientific knowledge should lead to significant questions about much of what is currently done in the name of international drug control.