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Were Kofi Annan and the other signatories to the Global Commission on Drugs Policy misled by the Report’s exaggerated claim of rising global drug use?

    With the report of her CPS factsheet "Misleading and Irresponsible Drug Prevalence Statistics: The Global Commission on Drug Policy’s provocative claims of non existent rises do not further rational drug policy debate", Research Fellow Kathy Gyngell examines the impact on the Global Comission and the Liberal Democrats, who used the report to call for more "evidenced-based" policy towards drugs.

    The ‘War on Drugs’, as the report of the newly formed Global Commission on Drug Policy was dramatically titled, received widespread uncritical comment when it was published in June. It was a public relations triumph for the drugs liberalisation lobby. “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,” Martin Wolf the FT’s top commentator authoritatively asserted, “If this is a successful policy, what would a failed one look like?"

    The figures he relied on at the front of the report however have proved not to be the UN’s estimates at all. They have turned out to be contrived figures attributed to the United Nations by it.

    For the Global Commission’s figures of a 34.5% rise in opiates, a 25.7% rise in Cocaine and an 8.5% rise in cannabis consumption between 1998 and 2008 are not contained in any known UN report. Indeed, there is no direct citation for them (a curious omission). And if you contact the Global Commission’s website in Brazil, you will receive a similar response to our email of enquiry – one that thanked for our “support” but offered no clarification.

    The simple fact is that it impossible to verify the Global Commission’s figures. Our searches back through UNODC World Drug Report statistical tables have failed to elicit them. These showed, to the contrary, opiate and heroin use to be stable and the GC figures to be at best exaggerated, at worst contrived and misleadingly attributed. They have proved more than difficult to verify. Is the Global Commission guilty of making up its own numbers?

    Following a request for clarification from the UNODC, the CPS can now reveal how the Global Commission arrived at its key data table. The UNODC’s polite explanation for the disparities found is that the GC calculated their figures on the basis of a “flawed methodology”.

    The Centre for Policy Studies factsheet, published today, reports this analysis, together with an explanation and accurately sourced figures of global drug use since 1998.

    Strangely enough, the UNODC take no responsibility at all for the Global Commission’s figures on cannabis, the most widely abused drug globally. It points out that on the Global Commission’s figures, the prevalence rate (always defined as the proportion of the population total) of abuse has actually gone down, not up. In addition, the Global Commission’s curious omission of a 75% decline in US cocaine consumption in the last twenty years has been highlighted by the UNODC elsewhere - a trend which has continued since 2008 - also surprised us. Surely this would be of primary interest to the ex-Presidents of Colombia and Mexico, two of the three joint founders of the Global Commission?

    It is ironic too that this weekend the Liberal Democrats at their Party Conference relied on this Report in support their call for an ‘evidence based’ drug policy - their multifaceted motion to reduce drug harms and subsequent vote to liberalise the law on drugs.

    A reading of the UNODC’s latest publication, 2011 World Drug Report, gives a clear picture of current consumption drug trends. It has found that:

    • global markets for cocaine, heroin and cannabis declined or remained stable,
    • the production and abuse of prescription opioid drugs and new synthetic drugs rose.
    • globally, 210 million people, that is 4.8 per cent of the population aged 15-64, took illicit substances (at least once) in the previous year.
    • overall drug use, including problem drug use, (0.6 per cent of the population aged 15-64) remained stable.
    • demand soared for substances not under international control, such as piperazine and cathinone.

    Hopefully the media will follow John Kay’s advice, “be careful of data defined by reference to other documents you are not expected to have read”, in his admirable article, “Sex, lies and pitfalls of overblown statistics”, listed by Lionel Barber, his editor, as one of his favourite pieces that week.

    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

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