The real drug use is in the detail: why a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy was misleading

An evidence-based approach to the future of drug policy is something we should all agree on. But we must ensure that the statistics we use are not misrepresented and false.

A report by the GCDP may have been misleading.
Jon Wilson
On 21 September 2011 10:14

During this week’s party conference, the Liberal Democrats have passed a motion calling for evidence-based policy in support of liberalising drug use.

The motion cited a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), published in June, which received widespread comment in the media due to its claim that “the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”

In support of this thesis the headline statistics indicated a global rise in drug use during the decade between 1998 and 2008, with cannabis use up 8.5 percent, cocaine up 27 percent, and opiates up by 34.5 percent.

Today, a factsheet by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) highlights that the statistics presented in the report were both incorrect and misleading.

Suspicions as to the accuracy of the data arose as soon as it was clear they were presented in the report without source, though textual references would lead an informed reader to assume that the figures are from official reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

However, inspection of the UNODC annual report regarding drugs use, the World Drug Report, from 1998-2008, fails to support the claims of the GCDP.

Having received an automated reply from the GCDP thanking us for our support, we contacted the UNODC, who not only washed their hands of any links with the GCDP, but also politely described their calculations as being based on a “flawed methodology.”

The 2008 figures used by the GCDP are mid-points of a statistical range generated by the UNODC report, despite the same report highlighting a much lower best estimate for drug consumption.

These best estimates suggest cocaine use was 15.42 million, rather than 17.35 million presented, and opiate use was 15.9 million, rather than 17.2 million Thus,  consumption respectively increased by 19.6 percent and 18.7 percent between 1998 and 2008 rather than the much higher 34.5 percent and 27 percent presented in the report.

The largest failure, however, is the lack of accounting for world population increases in the 15-64 age demographic, which grew by 685 million people, or 18.5 percent over the period. It should be obvious that even if the prevalence of drug use had remained the same, increases in population would mean that the absolute number of users would increase proportionately.

When population growth is factored in, the prevalence remains the same at around 0.35 percent for opiates and 0.36 percent for cocaine, much lower than the GCDPs estimates. And although the UNODC did not provide us with a best estimate for the number of cannabis users, we can note that the increase contained within the GCDP paper, +8.5 percent, is way below the population increase for the age group, indicating a decline in its prevalence.

Hardly powerful evidence against the status quo.

No doubt the report gained international credibility due to its distinguished Board, which included former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, amongst others. 

We do not know whether these high-profile personalities associated with the report know about its statistical failings.

It should be hoped that members, like the Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, would be well versed in the consequences of misrepresenting statistics, although he probably has bigger statistics to worry about.

An evidence-based approach to the future of drug policy is something we should all agree on. But political parties, politicians, researchers, commentators and most importantly the media should ensure that the statistics they use are not misrepresented and false.

The media’s failure to check out the sources contained within the report has distorted the national debate, maybe influencing many of the Liberal Democrats at the Birmingham conference to wrongly think that illegal drug use is rising.

Though there might be many failures of the ‘War on Drugs,’ containing the spread of drug consumption does not appear to be one of them.

Jon Wilson is a Masters graduate in International Politics and Intern at the Centre for Policy Studies. He tweets as @RtHonJon

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