Home > Who should decide national drug policy?

Pike, Brigid (2015) Who should decide national drug policy? Drugnet Ireland, Issue 52, Winter 2014, pp. 8-9.

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The previous article ‘Ireland’s drug policy – progress in 2013’ pointed to a difference of perspective between government and non-government sources in how progress was assessed. This contrast highlights the issue, who should be responsible and accountable for drug policy? How might different, even conflicting,  views and approaches be reconciled or a balance struck? These types of question are the theme of a recent special edition of the International Journal of Drug Policy – ‘Towards good governance in drug policy’.1


Understanding governance

The editors of the special edition note a consensus in the burgeoning literature the importance of governance: given the increasing complexity of societies, intensifying globalisation and accelerating technological change, new processes of governing drug policy are essential. Drawing on a range of authors, the editors characterise governance as follows: the interest in governance comes from a desire to understand how societies or organisations ‘steer’ themselves, are ‘directed, controlled and held to account’; governance encompasses a complex mesh of interacting events and actors, ‘multiple agencies and sites, with action on many levels, from global to local’; and the way to approach the study of governance is to look at the structures, processes and mechanisms through which policy is ‘informed, made, implemented and assessed’.


The editors acknowledge the work of three policy research groups in the study of governance in illicit drugs policy – the Australian-based Drug Policy Modelling Program; the UK Drug Policy Commission, which wound up in 2012, after five years; and ALICE RAP (Addictions and Lifestyles in Contemporary Europe – Reframing Addictions Project) funded by the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme. Many of the authors of the empirical accounts and critical analyses (15 in total) included in the special edition are or have been associated with one of these entities.2 


Reflecting on the assembled articles, the editors observe that the policy decision process in relation to illicit drugs needs to be ‘flexible’, adapting to different substances and contexts, and ‘appropriate’ to different local and national needs and cultures.  Although transparency is a desirable feature of any policy process, the editors note how some of the most effective (i.e. realistic, cooperative and science-based) drug policy has emerged behind closed doors, away from the media and the general public. They conclude:


But decisions taken by experts and insiders are not what representative democracy is supposed to be about. The challenge for proponents of good governance is to show how to marry the goals of transparency and democratic accountability with respect for logic and evidence.


What constitutes ‘good governance’?

One of the editors of the special edition is also co-author of an article that identifies the key requirements for good governance: goals; leadership and coordination; use of evidence; feedback and learning; stakeholder engagement; accountability; and a ‘safe space in which debate can take place’.3 However, the editors point out that many of the case studiesproblematise this ideal: government agendas, public concerns and expert opinion are often at odds, and including all relevant stakeholders in the policy process and seeking to incorporate all their views may well result in ‘a compromise (mish-mash or fudge) of contradictory and opposing views with no settled resolution’. Lancaster and Ritter conclude that effective collaboration might be possible through building shared values and interests and developing mutual trust through greater use of mechanisms such as committees and networks.4


What counts as ‘evidence’?

Not an easy question to answer. Monaghan highlights the need for a clear definition of what counts as evidence, including specific criteria for inclusion/exclusion, and determining how to accommodate competing expert, ideological and political perspectives on what constitutes evidence.5 Using a social constructionist approach, Lancaster questions whether researchers can ever really be apolitical and independent producers of ‘policy-relevant knowledge’. She suggests they answer questions posed by wider society and the resulting evidence is inevitably enmeshed in a particular policy context.6


Who are the ‘stakeholders’?

The stakeholders are those who have an impact on policy, or are impacted on by policy.  They include a wide range of different groups and actors. Stakeholders may come from various disciplines such as science, medicine or journalism, from different sectors such as public or private sector or civil society, and will reflect a wide variety of ideologies, values and belief systems. Two separate case studies, about the introduction of drug consumption rooms in Denmark, and the provision of opioid substitution treatment England, demonstrate how the outcome of a policy process reflects, and is to some extent determined by, who has participated or been excluded from participation, and also by the relative power of different groups and individuals.7



1 MacGregor S, Singleton N and Trautmann F (2014, September) Towards good governance in drug policy: Evidence, stakeholders and politics. Editorial. International Journal of Drug Policy (25/5): 931–934.

2 For more information on these entities, visit https://dpmp.unsw.edu.au/  ; http://www.alicerap.eu/

3 Singleton N and Rubin J (2014) What is good governance in the context of drug policy? International Journal of Drug Policy (25/5): 935–941.

4 Lancaster K and Ritter A (2014) Making change happen: a case study of the successful establishment of a peer-administered naloxone program in one Australian jurisdiction.  International Journal of Drug Policy (25/5):985–991.

5 Monaghan M (2014) Drug policy governance in the UK: lessons from changes to and debates concerning the classification of cannabis under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. International Journal of Drug Policy (25/5):1025–1030.

6 Lancaster K (2014) Social construction and the evidence-based drug policy endeavour. International Journal of Drug Policy (25/5): 948–951.

7 Houborg E and Frank VA (2014) Drug consumption rooms and the role of politics and governance in policy processes. International Journal of Drug Policy (25/5): 972–977; Duke K and Thom B (2014) The role of evidence and the expert in contemporary processes of governance: the case of opioid substitution treatment policy in England. International Journal of Drug Policy (25/5):964–971.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 52, Winter 2014
January 2015
Page Range
pp. 8-9
Health Research Board
Issue 52, Winter 2014

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