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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

 Chapter 21 - Public policy options

ineffectiveness of criminal policies


Two key indicators are usually applied to measure the effectiveness of drug-related criminal policy: reduced demand and reduced supply. Some authors attempt to measure the economic efficiency of various control options[1][2]; we do not address this aspect as the data are incomplete.

The methods of measuring the impact of public policy on supply and demand are faced with a series of methodological pitfalls. Firstly, the two indicators are relatively artificial and not easily distinguished from one another. In other words, a given measure impacts both indicators simultaneously and are often accomplished by the same institution For example, a police officer conducting drug “education” in schools, theoretically for the purpose of affecting demand, also works to reduce supply.  Secondly, the capacity of agencies responsible for affecting one or the other depends on a series of factors relating to their means and resources, their practices and skills, and their competence. For the police, the number of officers per capita and the general thrust of law enforcement services (community police, traditional more reactive police) as well as the priority given to drug-related offences, can influence the volume of reported incidents as well as the decision to lay a charge. Generally speaking, the total resources allocated by a government to its drug policy may affect one or both of these indicators. In short, effectiveness cannot be measured directly.

It is even more difficult to assess, even indirectly, the impact of action taken, when clear objectives, ideally associated with indicators, are not defined, as is the case in Canada at this time, as was seen in Chapter 11. This being the case, and because we are in no position to make a rigorous assessment of public policy on drugs, we will examine the question on the basis of a series of indirect indicators.


Impact on consumption

General policy direction


At the most general level, national governments (see preceding chapter) define a general direction for their policies on drugs. Some are more tolerant or permissive (e.g., the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Germany); others stress prohibition and abstention (e.g., the United States, Sweden, France). Admittedly, these are crude categories, ignoring the complexity of each country’s policy. Even in the U.S.A. with its “war on drugs”, individual cities and states may implement widely different measures. Furthermore, there is often a huge gap between public policy statement and concrete action. For example, in France, a tough stance on use is accompanied by limited user-related police activity. In Canada, as a number of witnesses told us, enforcement by police is often at odds with “lenient” court decisions. In other words, there is no direct relationship between political statements and concrete action.

Some comparative studies have attempted to determine whether or not public policy influences use levels. A study by Reuband compares “tolerant” European countries (the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, and Italy) and restrictive countries (Germany, France, Norway, United Kingdom, and Sweden). The study found no significant differences between consumption levels, regardless of public policy direction.[2][3]

The “Message” of the Conseil fédéral suisse sur la révision de la loi sur les stupéfiants reports the results of a comparative study on seven European countries by Cesoni, which reached the conclusion that the legal regime had no influence on the frequency of consumption.[3][4]

Another study carried out for the Office fédéral suisse de la Santé publique classifies the policies of European countries on a line from “very liberal” to “very restrictive”, relating them to the lifetime prevalence of cannabis consumption. The study shows no relation between severity of legislation and level of use.[4][5]

We have drawn up two similar charts, classifying the policies of the various countries and adding Canada, Australia, and the United States. We used the Chapter 6 data on lifetime prevalence of consumption in the general population (Chart 1) and in the past month among 15-16 year olds (Chart 2).




The charts show no direct relationship between consumption levels and public policy direction. Very liberal countries show low rates (Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal), whereas countries that have very restrictive policies show high rates (USA, Canada, France). Of course this may be explained by the fact that these are static statistical data not a  time series, and are thus little influenced by variations from year to year. Another possible explanation is that, as few users are arrested, there is a strong inconsistency between words and action. The following section looks at this issue.


Cannabis consumption and arrests

A number of authors have looked at the relationship between arrest levels and delinquent behaviour in general, and in drug consumption in particular. One recent study was conducted by Kilmer[5][6] within the context of the International Scientific Conference on Cannabis. The following graph is from that study.



The graph shows that, in all countries, the number of arrests per inhabitant for simple possession of cannabis increased during the 1990s, with Australia the only exception. Switzerland, currently considered relatively moderate, has the highest level of arrests per inhabitant, followed by the USA, Austria, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

Here again there appears to be no direct relationship between direction of public policy and arrests. Switzerland and Australia, both of which have far more moderate policies than the USA, arrest proportionally larger numbers of people than that country, although Switzerland’s consumption rate is far lower than that of the USA, and Australia’s is virtually the same.  

The variation in rates of arrest cannot be explained by the number of police officers per inhabitant. France has far more officers than does the USA or England, but arrests far fewer people than the USA and fewer than the UK for simple possession.

We created a graph charting the relationship between the number of users among high school youth in Ontario in the past twelve months and incidents declared by the police of cannabis-related offences in the same year in Ontario. We chose Ontario because it is the only province that produces continuous time series on consumption levels, and the Ontario figures are almost identical to the Canadian mean (Chapter 14). The results are shown below.




Numberof users













Thegraph shows a very weak statistical relationship (0.15) between police activityand cannabis use. In other words, police activity has no dissuasive effect oncannabis experimentation by young students.

Criminologyteaches that probability of arrest carries far more dissuasive weight thanseverity of sentence. As the following table shows, the probability of arrest isvery low for cannabis possession offences.



Probability of being arrested for cannabis possession[1][7]











United States


United Kingdom








































Public spending

Whilenone of the preceding factors appears related to consumption levels, can a casebe made for public spending?

There isdanger in trying to estimate the overall cost of public policy on drugs. Evenfor a budget item as seemingly well-defined as law enforcement, estimates areunreliable. As we saw in Chapter 14, the cost of law enforcement ranges from$700 million to $1 billion. Figures on public expenditure related totreatment and prevention, even if we know that they are much smaller than thosefor law enforcement, are equally unreliable.[1][8]

Makinginternational comparisons is even riskier. Services are organized differently,costs are not accounted for in the same way, and service orientation and overallgovernment direction vary widely.

Withthese reservations, we will attempt the exercise based on data from a number ofsources. To make the results a little more comparable, we restrict thecomparison to law enforcement expenditures which, in any case, account forbetween 70% and 90% of public spending relating to illegal drugs. The followingtable summarizes the data. (Note that, for Canada, we have used the data fromthe CCSA study rather than our own estimates from Chapter 14. Our data show acost estimate of law enforcement (police, courts, prisons) of approximately $1.5billion or $50 per capita).



Costs of enforcinglegislation in various countries


Cost ofenforcing legislation

Per capitacosts

Germany, 1992[1][9]


Australia, 1992[1][10]


Canada, 1992[1][11]


United States[1][12]


France, 1998[1][13]


The Netherlands[1][14]

DM 6.3 billion


A$450 million


US$300 million


US$12.3 billion


US$500 million


US$230 million














We notethat countries in which consumption levels are average (Germany, theNetherlands) spend less than the USA, which has a high consumption rate; inaddition, these countries, specifically, show law enforcement expenditures abovethose of two far more restrictive countries (France and Canada).

Inshort, here again cannabis consumption levels appear unaffected by public policythat aims to reduce demand by cracking down on use.


Impact on supply

Doe spublic policy affect drug availability or price? The available data suggest not.

In spiteof sustained efforts to exert national and international control, battle drugtrafficking (macro and micro, local and international), the availability ofdrugs, and cannabis in particular, has not fallen. Price has fallensignificantly (e.g., heroin, cocaine) or remained relatively stable (e.g.,cannabis and derivatives).[1][15] The relative price increase for some grades of cannabis is at least asclosely linked to attempts to improve “quality” (e.g., THC content, organiccultivation) and the large profit margin earned by producers and traffickers, asit is to the efforts of law enforcement agencies.







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