If we had evidence-based drug policy what would it look like?

First published: 09 May 2019 | Last updated: 20 May 2019

In the political satire Yes Prime Minister, the leading bureaucrat Sir Humphrey explains to another civil servant that the purpose in naming a White Paper “Open Government” was to disguise its purpose, which was to ensure Government was anything but open.  There is considerable rhetoric worldwide in support of evidenced based policies but at times across the addictions it seems that policies with the least evidence are adopted and those with the most are rejected.

The purpose of this presentation is to discuss what an evidence based drugs policy may look from an economist’s standpoint.  Available evidence on the costs and effectiveness of different policy objectives could be compiled to aid decision makers.  Research can be systematically reviewed and models of different impacts and interactions built.  Such explicit models have illustrated why some policies adopted in isolation do not bring the expected benefits that are sometimes expected from “naive” policy makers.  The talk will be illustrated with the results of an initial attempt to build a simple model for England and Wales.

However, some specific issues arise in evaluating illicit drug policies.  First is the level of uncertainty in compiling the evidence base.  Second is the value given to a number of different outcomes.  For example, does society “care” for the health outcomes of individual drug misusers or put a higher value on reducing drug-related crimes.  Scientific research in itself cannot resolve these issues but it can provide techniques that should allow more explicit discussion of the values and assumptions being taken by decision makers.  Researchers therefore should be able to illustrate what the evidence suggests are the results of different mixes of drug policies with the degree of uncertainty about these figures.


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Christine Godfrey