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The impact of drug policy on society

August 21, 2017

Every country in Europe has its own drug policy. The ERANID project ‘Illicit Drug Policies and Social Outcome’ (IDPSO) will study the societal impact of policy. Not in order to compare countries, but to show policymakers the potential impact of the choices they make.

Rules on illegal drugs generally concern their production, distribution and use. But something that is banned in one country may be allowed in another. ‘There is no right model,’ says Ricardo Gonçalves of Católica Porto Business School (Portugal). ‘But we aim to understand the impact of different policies. A law may have a positive influence in some areas, but can have a negative impact on other social indicators.’ By cataloguing and analysing policy, implementation and impact in 7 countries, Gonçalves hopes to show policymakers what their choices can lead to.

Cross-country analysis

ERANID provides the perfect opportunity for anyone wanting to investigate different policies, which after all means one has to look at several countries, all pursuing their own policies. 4 ERANID partners are actively involved in the study: Portugal, France, Italy and the Netherlands. The situation in the UK, Canada and Australia will also be studied. ‘It’s a cross-country analysis made possible by ERANID,’ says Gonçalves. ‘We’re very pleased to have an international consortium with high-profile experts from each country.’ The idea is certainly not to compare countries, it is more a matter of identifying the individual consequences of each policy choice.

Collecting data

First, national drug policy in the 7 countries will be explored using a new technique known as Leximetrics. What is each country’s drug legislation like? What is allowed and what is banned? How stringent is sentencing? And what are addiction care services like? What facilities are available? Who funds them? The exact questions will be determined as part of the project, but they will certainly be considered in retrospect, over a period of 20 years. This method should produce a large set of quantitative data that will provide the basis for later analysis.

Perception and reality

It is not only a matter of legislation and rules, however. How policy is implemented and how those involved regard it is at least equally important. ‘The law is only theory,’ says Gonçalves. ‘If the use of a drug is illegal, but the police never arrest a user, then we have to take that into account. The way a law is enforced is as important as the law itself.’ It is also a matter of how people perceive the law as being implemented. ‘It’s a mixture of perception and reality,’ Gonçalves explains. The project will explore this using a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Impact

A subsequent phase will investigate the outcomes of the policy pursued in each country, using a set of drug-related social indicators. It is not yet known what these will be, but they will include factors related to the legal system and the use of addictive substances. In other words, the focus will be on the number of convictions, or cases, and also on how easily available drugs are, the spread of HIV and hepatitis among addicts, the number of people in treatment for addiction etc.

Data processing

Once these data have been gathered, the ‘real work’ will begin: combining and analysing all the data – a huge job. Gonçalves also plans to include data on social, cultural and economic factors in the seven countries in his analysis. ‘Many parts of this study have been done in the past. Never before have we combined all these data in one cross-country study. Yes, it will be a lot of work, but in both social and economic science we have techniques that make this kind of analysis possible. I’m convinced we will be able to find strong relationships between policy and social outcome. But don’t ask me now how we’re going to do that. That will be part of the research over the coming years and will also depend on the work done during the process.’

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