Blue-ribbon panel misrepresented illicit drug trends

Elements of the media greeted the report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy with glee when it was published in June. By asserting that international efforts to control illicit drugs had failed, it fitted with their belief that the “war against drugs” should be abandoned.

“A report that dares to tell the truth to power” said The Independent in a leader. “A drugs war that’s not worth fighting” wrote columnist Mary Ann Sieghart in the same paper.  “We should declare an end to our disastrous war on drugs” was the headline on a column by Martin Wolf in The Financial Times which began: “The global war on drugs has failed. Readers should not take my word for this. It is the opening sentence on the failure of prohibition from an independent Global Commission on Drug Policy”.

The commission was chaired by Fernando Enrique Cardoso, a former President of Brazil, and included Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former US Secretary of State George Schultz, writers Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, and Sir Richard Branson.

Amidst the enthusiastic reception of the report, one note of caution was struck. Kathryn Gyngell, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, wrote a letter to the Financial Times berating Martin Wolf for his uncritical receptions of the report. Did he really think that decriminalisation could achieve anything but an increased demand for drugs? And why had statistics from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODOC) been omitted from the report?

Ms Gyngell has now assembled, with the help of UNODOC, a short but compelling demolition of the central point in the commission’s report – that the consumption  of drugs has not been curtailed. The report claims in the decade 1998-2008, using data attributed to UNODOC, that opiate use has risen by 34.5 per cent, cocaine by 27 per cent, and cannabis by 8.5 per cent.

UNODOC examined the figures, concluding that the 1998 figure came from a report it published in 2002, which actually covered 1998-2001, not just 1998. The 2008 figures appear, it says, to be the midpoint of the range presented in a 2010 UNODOC report. But it is wrong to assume that the midpoint necessarily represents the best point estimate, especially as in this case UNODOC had given the best estimates it had, which were lower.

So instead of opiate consumption increasing by 34.5 per cent, it had increased by 19.6 per cent, and cocaine by 18.7 per cent rather than 27 per cent. And since the world population aged between 15 and 64 had increased by 18.5 per cent during the period, per capita consumption hadn’t actually risen at all – a fact ignored by the Global Commission.

UNODOC concludes: “ Based on UNODOC’s published best estimates of the number of cocaine and opiate users, the prevalence rates for annual use in the population aged 15-64 remained stable at around 0.35 per cent for opiate and 0.36 per cent for cocaine between 1998 and 2008”.

UNODOC  does not present a best estimate for cannabis use but on the Commission’s own figures of a 8.5 per cent increase, once population numbers are accounted for, cannabis use has declined.  

What were all those distinguished people doing when they were writing the report? Doing something else entirely, I’d suspect. Their minds can hardly have been focussed razor-sharp on getting the details right when the source of that data puts a wholly different perspective on it.  

So why did I not spot this egregious misuse of statistics myself? Stupidity, I guess. Congratulations and thanks to Ms Gyngell.