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Ryan Bourne: The Global Commission on Drug Policy's consumption statistics are both wrong and misleading

BourneRyan2Ryan Bourne is the Economic and Statistical Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @RyanCPS.

Back in June, the mightily-named "Global Commission on Drugs Policy" released its report into the effectiveness of the "War on Drugs". The 19-member panel, which brought together the likes of Kofi Annan, Sir Richard Branson, the beleaguered Greek Prime Minister George Papendreou and former US Federal Reserve Chief Paul Volcker, unanimously concluded that the "War on Drugs" had failed. They advocated various degrees of decriminalisation and "fundamental reforms" on national and global drug control policies.

The report was, perhaps inevitably, seized upon by the liberal luvvy media, who waxed lyrical about its conclusions. The Independent took the lead, claiming that the work was "A report that dares to tell the truth to power."  The great former US President Jimmy Carter immediately demanded that "the American government should support and enact the reforms laid out." And not to be outdone by Eddie Izzard’s expert views on the future of our electoral system, those well-known members of the Royal Statistical Society, Dame Judi Dench, Sting and Kevin & Perry star Kathy Burke, waded in with a celebrity endorsed letter critiquing current government drugs policy.

Unfortunately, just like Jill Kirby’s findings when digging deeper into the UNICEF report on families, the evidence presented by the Global Commission on Drug Policy fails to live up to robust scrutiny.

It all started well enough. The very first principle outlined in the report, in which there are many more pages of "Recommendations" than evidence, states that "Drugs policy must be based on solid empirical and scientific evidence". On that, we can surely all agree. But this makes it all the more surprising that the very first table of the report, which appears to indicate a huge increase in global drug consumption, is provided without a source.

The implication of the findings is of course, that rising global drug consumption has occurred despite the "War on Drugs" and as such an attempt to limit use of cocaine, opiates and cannabis has failed. Martin Wolf in the FT (£) perhaps best encapsulated the feeling of anyone swallowing the statistic at face-value, when he wrote "In the 10 years to 2008, according to the UN, global use of opiates has risen by 34.5 per cent, of cocaine by 27 per cent and of cannabis by 8.5 per cent. If this is a successful policy, what would a failed one look like?"

The lack of a direct citation for these statistics sent alarm bells ringing in the Centre for Policy Studies PANDA group. Attempts to contact the Global Commission were met with e-mails thanking us for "our support". Searching back through UNODC World Drug Report Statistical tables proved futile. So in the end, we requested clarification from the UNODC – given that they appeared to be indirectly credited in later parts of the report. They at least proved that diplomatic language was alive and well when they eventually revealed that the Global Commission’s figures had been based on a “flawed methodology”.

The mistakes made by the Commission boil down to two quite basic errors, as highlighted by a Factsheet derived from the UNODC and published by the CPS today. The 2008 figures they use are mid-points of a statistical range, even though a much lower best estimate for drug consumption is explicitly provided by UNODC in the same document from which they were taken. This means that cocaine consumption was actually closer to 15.42 million (rather than the 17.35 million presented) and opiate use was closer to 15.9 million (rather than the 17.2 million presented) – the number of annual users had actually increased by 19.6% and 18.7% between 1998 and 2008, rather than the 34.5% and 27% presented.

Perhaps more importantly, examination of absolute numbers does not control for the huge growth in adult population that has been seen between 1998 and 2008. Once the 18.5% increase in 15-64 year olds globally is accounted for, we see that opiate and cocaine use has remained stable at 0.35% and 0.36% prevalence rates. For cannabis, the situation is even more clear cut. “The increase calculated in the Global Commission paper (+8.5%) is actually below the 18-64 (sic) age group population increase (+18.5 %) which would translate in a decline of the prevalence rate of use for cannabis.”

Given this information, it is unclear whether high-profile signatories to the Global Commission would have been so willing to support the group, had they known of the misuse of statistics. At best flawed, and at worst deliberately misleading, they clearly exaggerate global drug consumption. Whilst there are, of course, many other implications of drug policy, the "War on Drugs" has not been a complete failure in, at least, containing drug use. In fact annual global drug prevalence has remained largely stable at 4.8% (of the global adult population) in recent years.

The CPS is therefore today calling for an immediate halt to the misleading use of these statistics in our mainstream media. They have been reported time and again in the FT - despite numerous complaints to the PCC - and are distorting the national debate about the future of drugs policy. The rigorous debate on its future is, of course, needed, but must be genuinely evidence based – meaning that the Global Commission must clarify accurately the scale of drug consumption. All involved would do well to read John Kay’s advice, “be careful of data defined by reference to other documents you are not expected to have read”, in the article, “Sex, lies and pitfalls of overblown statistics”. Published, without irony, in the very same newspaper most guilty of reporting these false facts. 

> Also on Comment today we've published an alternative view of drugs policy, from Joshua Lachkovic.


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