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Alex Stevens
Professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Kent


‘We need common indicators’

International cooperation on research into illicit drugs is vital, argues Alex Stevens, Professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Kent. ‘It’s a transnational problem’, he explains. ‘Drugs and people don’t stop at the border and every country faces similar problems.’ However, he also points out that cooperation will not be enough in itself. ‘We need better data, based on common indicators, to compare countries properly.’


Stevens explains that the lack of indicators can, for example, prevent us from drawing clear conclusions about the effect of the policy in one country compared with another policy in another country. ‘We can’t even say how many people die from using drugs in Europe, so how can we measure policy effects?’ He at any rate believes far too little consideration is given to whether policy is effective. ‘If you look what most of the money for preventing and combating drug use goes on, it’s the police and prisons. But is that money well spent? Have there been any proper evaluations? Hardly any.’

Different studies

To Stevens, therefore, ERANID provides perfect opportunities for academics to perform more comparative international studies of the effects of policy. However, clear common – and thus comparable – indicators will first have to be established. ‘Nowadays we do have a good understanding of the differences in drugs policy in Europe, but we do not know what the consequences of those differences are on the ground. In Europe we don’t have a culture of investigating the drugs phenomenon and especially drugs policy effects.’ He hopes that ERANID can change all this.


The ‘supply side’
Another subject close to his heart is the ‘supply side’ – production, transport and trade in illegal drugs. He agrees that it is difficult to research this properly, as it all happens clandestinely. ‘What we do manage to find out is not what we want to know. We’re looking at the wrong side of the problem. When it goes wrong and drugs dealers or smugglers are arrested, we can investigate them, but it is much more important to know about when things go “right”, when no one gets caught. We need more research on that, but it’s complex. It means you have to spend years investing in building a relationship of trust between researchers and criminals. It is possible, and there are some good examples, but it’s not easy.’


Global versus local
Stevens says it is important to get a picture of the entire chain of production, right up to the sale of illegal drugs. And you do need to look beyond borders to do that, so in that sense he is very pleased with ERANID, because it has given international research a boost. However, he warns against focusing exclusively on the global or macro level. ‘The consequences are visible on the streets of Amsterdam, or London, or Madrid, so that’s where your researchers need to be, looking at the local differences. Say a new kind of drug comes onto the market – which happens all the time. One country bans it while another pursues a less restrictive policy. So you want to know what happens in each of these countries. Does a ban lead to less use, or does the trade simply shift underground? This requires research at micro level. So research at macro level, albeit very important, must not be at the expense of research at micro level.’


Common policy
Stevens at any rate supports the idea that every country should be free to determine its own drugs policy. ‘It is not necessary and not even desirable that we implement one common European drugs policy. All the countries of Europe are different, and we need room to express that in policy.’ Nevertheless, Stevens believes there is a need for a common framework, a basis we can use to shape drugs policy in Europe. ‘There will always be people who want a bigger and stronger framework, as there will be people who want the opposite. 'The current European strategy is the result of negotiations between countries who have some different ideas. We work together to combat illegal drugs, on the basis of common frameworks, but there is enough scope for countries to give it their own interpretation.’