Improving illicit drug policy
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Kent
Unit of AssessmentSocial Work and Social Policy
Summary Impact TypePolitical
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Studies In Human Society: Criminology
Summary of the impact
This research has had impact on two linked areas of illicit drug policy.
Firstly, pioneering research on the effects of drug decriminalisation in
Portugal has shifted the debate on this issue in the UK, US and elsewhere
towards an acceptance that decriminalisation is a viable and not harmful
approach. Secondly, research on alternatives to imprisonment for
drug-dependent offenders has moved debate towards supporting the expansion
of treatment for such offenders in the UK and US. These impacts are
evidenced in the citation of the research by policy-makers and NGOs
(including the British Sentencing Advisory Panel; The All Party
Parliamentary Group on Drugs; the Home Affairs Select Committee; UK NGOs,
Release and Transform; the US Drug Policy Alliance and the United Nations
Office on Drugs and Crime), demonstrating a significant influence on
policy-making as well as public debate.
The underpinning research has been a critical and comparative analysis of
drug treatment and drug policy in different national jurisdictions
undertaken by Alex Stevens (who joined Kent in 2001 as a Research
Fellow and became Professor of Criminology in 2010).
The research included a series of linked studies of drug
decriminalisation, quasi-compulsory treatment (QCT) alternatives to
imprisonment for drug users, and the effects of drug, crime, health and
welfare policies on drug problems. This included analysis of the effects
of national drug policies on national drug problems in Portugal (where
drug use was decriminalised in 2001). Research was based on interviews
with key stakeholders [see references 3.1, 3.2] and a
multi-national evaluation of QCT for drug-dependent offenders using the
European Addiction Severity Index [ref 3.5] led by Stevens from
2001 to 2004 (the `QCT Europe' project). The key findings have been that:
- Decriminalisation does not necessarily lead to increased rates of
illicit drug use.
- Decriminalisation facilitates the implementation of a public health
approach, which has reduced deaths and HIV infections in Portugal.
- Ethically sound drug treatment motivated by the criminal justice
system can be effective in treating drug dependence among offenders.
- Risks of net-widening must be considered in policy development and
implementation, with the aim of policy to reduce the number of
individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system.
These findings are important because drug policy is often decided on the
basis of ideological bias and power inequalities, as shown by Stevens'
systematic and comparative reviews of drug policy [ref 3.3]:
without Stevens' work on Portuguese decriminalisation, there would be no
peer-reviewed evidence available to refute widely disseminated suggestions
that the policy has either been an uncomplicated `resounding success' or a
`disastrous failure' [ref 3.1].
Stevens' research has hence provided a basis for evidence-based policy in
this contentious area of policy-making. By considering the relative
efficacy of criminal justice, health and welfare policies in reducing drug
problems [ref 3.3 and 3.6], it has demonstrated that the potential
effects of a punitive criminal justice approach are limited, but that
health and - in particular - welfare policy approaches are more promising
in terms of harm reduction.
References to the research
3.1 - Hughes, C. and Stevens, A. (2010) `What can we learn from the
Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs?' British Journal of
Criminology, 50(6), 999-1022 [submitted to REF2, output ID
3.2 - Hughes, C., and Stevens, A. (2012) `A "resounding success" or a
"disastrous failure": Re- examining the interpretation of evidence on the
Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs' Drug and Alcohol Review
3.3 - Reuter, P. and Stevens, A. (2007) An Analysis of UK Drug Policy.
London: UK Drug Policy Commission.
3.4 - Reuter, P. and Stevens, A. (2008) `Assessing UK Drug Policy from a
Crime Control Perspective' Criminology and Criminal Justice 8 (4):
3.5 - Schaub, M., Stevens, A., Berto, D., Hunt, N., Kerschl, V.,
McSweeney, T., Oeuvray K., Puppo, I., Santa Maria, A., Trinkl, B.,
Werdenich, W. and Uchtenhagen, A. (2010) `Comparing Outcomes of
`Voluntary' and `Quasi-Compulsory' Treatment of Substance Dependence in
Europe' European Addiction Research 16: 53-60 [submitted to
REF2, output ID SSPSSR160].
3.6 - Stevens, A. (2011) Drugs, Crime and Public Health: The
Political Economy of Drug Policy. Abingdon: Routledge.
Stevens' research has been funded by grants exceeding £1.5 million,
including the following:
•£35,000 from ESRC for a fellowship in the Cabinet Office
Strategy Unit (April 2009).
•£87,297 from Kent County Council for the development and
evaluation of a multi-component programme to reduce adolescent risk
behaviours (November 2008).
•€492,683 from the European Commission's Public Health Executive
Agency for the Connections project (research and
dissemination on illicit drugs and infectious disease in European
criminal justice systems (September 2007).
•£12,000 from Release (on behalf of the Beckley Foundation) for
research and policy reviews (February 2007).
•£10,000 from the UK Drug Policy Commission for an analysis of
UK drug policy (2006).
•£95,979 from the Department of Health for project "Early Exit:
estimating and explaining early exit from drug treatment" (2005).
•€855,007 from European Commission (Fifth Framework RTD
Programme) for project "QCT Europe" (2002).
Details of the impact
Stevens' research has provided unique evidence concerning the effects of
`progressive decriminalisation'. The research has transformed policy and
public debates by challenging existing punitive models. Using Stevens'
work, politicians and campaigners in the UK, US and elsewhere have been
able to propose moves towards decriminalisation on the basis of rigorous
evidence. The main beneficiaries of Stevens' research are therefore
policy-makers and campaigners who debate the best means to reduce the
harms associated with the consumption of illicit drugs through criminal
sanctions or alternatives based on voluntary treatment and
Impact on policy debate:
The research on Portuguese drugs policy has shifted drugs policy debate
in the UK, US and elsewhere, in the direction of considering
decriminalisation as a feasible and potentially effective policy. This
impact has been made possible by widespread citations in the media, in
policy reports and in `grey' literature. For example, the research has
been featured in The Observer (5 September 2010), in Time
magazine (article by Maia Szalavitz, 23 November 2010), in the Wall
Street Journal (article by Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy, 13 January
2013) and in many other news articles. The research has been cited in
policy reports both by campaigning NGOs (e.g. in the reports A
Quiet Revolution by Release  and The
Alternative World Drug Report  by Count the Costs) and
other NGOs in this field (e.g. A
Fresh Approach to Drugs by the UK Drug Policy Commission
 and Drugs
of Dependence by the British Medical Association ). The
international impact of Stevens' research on Portugal is also evidenced by
citations in the US and Australia in media and policy reports. In addition
to the articles in Time and the Wall Street Journal
referenced above, this includes a report on Alternatives
to Prohibition by the think-tank Australia 21. Stevens
was interviewed on his research on Portuguese decriminalisation on Radio
4's Today programme on 10 December 2012. The media profile
achieved by this research [see corroboration 5.1] has led to it
also being used by politicians in policy debates. For example, at its 2011
annual conference, the Liberal Democrat Party passed a motion specifically
referring to the Portuguese example in its call to re-examine drug policy
Impact on government policy:
The UK government embarked on a major expansion of quasi-compulsory
treatment from 2001 (in the form of the drug treatment and testing order)
without evidence on its effects. In this period, the US has also expanded
QCT through the creation of drug courts. Stevens' work has provided data
that support the assertion that this type of quasi-coerced treatment of
drug users can be as effective as voluntary programmes. His research
outputs have provided politicians with an impartial evidence base from
which future policies are being driven, and have moved the debate to
consider issues of the ethical limits of QCT and the issue of penal
These impacts have been attested to by politicians from both Houses of
Parliament. The Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy
Reform [corrob 5.3] has written, `Professor Stevens has been one of
the few reliable sources of research evidence for politicians and opinion
formers. His work on Portugal, in particular, has made considerable impact
upon political debate in this country and internationally'. One of the MP
members of the Home Affairs Select Committee confirms this, writing that,
`The Committee leaned on aspects of your work in reaching our conclusions
and your research helped us to reach a cross-party consensus within our
Committee when assessing the Portuguese model' [corrob 5.4].
Stevens' research has been cited in reports from all these parliamentary
bodies [corrob 5.5], with specific reference to the Portuguese
decriminalisation research made in the Home Affairs Select Committee
Breaking the Cycle. Stevens' research was also cited in the
2008 national drug strategy and in 2009 by the Sentencing Advisory Panel
in a consultation which led to the reduction of prison sentence length for
some drug offences, in line with the recommendations from Stevens'
Internationally, this research has been cited by the Global Commission on
Drug Policy in its report War on Drugs (2011) [corrob 5.6].
This organisation is committed to developing an informed, science-based
discussion on effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs, and
includes among its commissioners a number of former presidents, prime
ministers and foreign secretaries from an international arena including
the US. Stevens' research findings provided evidence-based support of
their argument towards decriminalisation. Significantly, Stevens was
invited to discuss his work on Portugal with staff of the US Senate and
the House of Representatives while in Washington in March 2011. Stevens'
research on alternatives to imprisonment has also been cited in policy
guidance to national governments from the United Nations Office on Drugs
and Crime [corrob 5.7], further evidencing its impact on an
Impact on the work of campaigning organisations:
Stevens' research has influenced the work of a prominent movement for
drug policy reform in the US (the Drug Policy Alliance) that has taken up
his recommendations to avoid net-widening in QCT [corrob 5.8].
Stevens was consulted by the NGO Release in preparing the open letter that
it published in The Guardian to mark the 40th
anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act. The Director of Release, has
written, `Professor Stevens is seen within the drug policy field as the
leading expert on issues where drug policy, criminal justice and public
health intersect. His work is often cited by advocates and has been hugely
influential in Release's strategic campaigning plan' [corrob 5.9].
Another leading NGO that is working on this issue is Transform.
Its Senior Policy Analyst wrote, `in a debate frequently dominated by
emotive and polarised opinion, and historically characterised by a lack of
coherent evidence based analysis, Professor Stevens' work on the
intersection of criminal justice and public health policy in the drugs
field has made a significant contribution to building the growing momentum
towards more just and effective drug policies, both in the UK and
internationally' [corrob 5.10]. These statements by prominent
national and international organisations working in the area of drug
policy underline the impact that Stevens' work is having in shifting drugs
policy away from punitive regulation towards alternative models of
Sources to corroborate the impact
(All links correct at time of submission to REF2014)
5.1 - Key press articles citing the Portugal BJC article,
These media citations - among others - evidence the influence of Stevens'
work on the public debate nationally and internationally.
5.2 - The Liberal Democrat motion, 2011: http://www.libdemvoice.org/libdem-conference-passes-drugs-motion-25314.html
This motion translated Stevens' findings on Portuguese decriminalisation
into Liberal Democrat policy.
5.3 - Statement provided by ID 1 (Chair of the All Party Parliamentary
Group on Drug Policy Reform) corroborating value of research in informing
UK drug policy.
5.4 - Statement provided by ID 2 (Member of the Home Affairs Select
Committee) corroborating value of research in informing UK drug policy.
5.5 - A number of reports demonstrate the impact of Stevens' research on
Portuguese decriminalisation on UK policy-making. For example,
Parliamentary debates mentioning the research include House
of Lords March 2011 and House
of Commons September 2011; the UK Government's The
2008 Drug Strategy and the National
Drug Strategy 2010.
5.6 - See references to the research in the Report
of the Global Commission on Drug Policy 2011. This report was
endorsed by ex-US President Carter and has been influential in promoting
an international move towards decriminalisation.
5.7 - The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2009) From
Coercion to Cohesion. This report shows the international
impact of Stevens' research on the lack of effect of punitive sanctions
and the potential benefits of QCT alternatives, which it cites.
5.8 - Drug Policy Alliance, 2011: Drug
Courts Are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centred Approach
to Drug Use. This report shows how the DPA took up Stevens'
recommendation to focus on the issue of net-widening in campaigning on
5.9 - Statement provided by ID 3 (Director of Release) corroborating
value of research in informing campaign work. There was also Press
coverage of the Release open letter, 2011.
5.10 - Statement provided by ID 4 (Senior Policy Analyst, Transform)
corroborating value of research in informing advocacy work.