Home > Drug policy and rationality: an exploration of the research - policy interface

Randall, Niamh (2008) Drug policy and rationality: an exploration of the research - policy interface. MSc thesis, Trinity College Dublin.

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This study was aimed at exploring the extent to which drug policy making in Ireland may be deemed to be a rational process, in which there is a clearly identifiable research-policy interface; the study was prompted by the explicit emphasis in current policy discourse on 'evidence-based' policy making, as exemplified by the 'research pillar' of the National Drugs Strategy. The study used mixed methods: semi-structured interviews were undertaken with key stakeholders involved in the development and implementation of drugs policy; they were supplemented by a case study method which uses documentary analysis to focus on three contentious areas of drugs policy making – Drug Treatment Courts, the substitution treatment buprenorphine, and education and prevention - in the Irish context.

The findings demonstrated that policy making in relation to illicit drugs continues to be a complex process, characterised by conflicting value systems and ambiguity, as well by tensions between the various stakeholders, including those within the public sector who are involved in this process. Ultimately, it appears as though policy making in this sphere is best described as 'political'; policy makers reach decisions which reflect compromise between what research recommends as the optimal course of action and what is most acceptable to public opinion or to the other key players in the broader policy arena. Thus, it concluded that research evidence represents just one competing influence in the 'policy-mix'; policy makers make selective use of such evidence, often to legitimate decisions already arrived at on other grounds. Attempts to identify a research-policy interface, in the sense of an identifiable point at which research findings are fed into the policy process proved impossible, and there was general agreement that dedicated research institutions play a relatively minor role in the entire decision-making system.

It was suggested Ireland's policy culture, which is currently dominated by 'social partnership', facilitated the emergence of compromise and consensus in drug policy as in other potentially contentious areas of social policy. Similarly, it was thought that the application of New Public Management ideas under the banner of the Strategic Management Initiative (SMI) - especially in relation to the management of 'cross-cutting' issues - helped to create the illusion of rationality, thereby helping to defuse conflicts and controversies in this arena. In addition, it may serve to reinforce the gap between policy making and policy implementation.

On balance, the study confirmed that drug policy making continues to be an incremental process, at best informed by research rather than evidence-based.

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