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ELEANOR HALL: Some of the world's leading drug and alcohol researchers are calling on governments to carefully rethink their policy responses in light of new research. Eight scientific papers published today, have smashed some myths and confirmed others on what drives the behaviour of drug users - particularly during an economic downturn.
The researchers say this provides sound evidence on which to base government responses, as Ashley Hall reports.
ASHLEY HALL: Since the global financial crisis hit in late 2007, governments worldwide have been under pressure to balance their books. Many of them have taken the axe to programs that support people with drug and alcohol problems. But at what cost?
Rosalie Liccardo Pacula is the co-director of the Rand Corporation's drug research centre. She's been reviewing eight new studies into the effect of an economic downturn on drug and alcohol consumption, and on the services designed to help with substance abuse problems. And she's found some long held myths simply don't stack up.
ROSALIE LICCARDO PACULA: The myth regarding the impact of recession leading to higher binge drinking hasn't been supported by the economic research.
ASHLEY HALL: Although the research did find more people than usual drink small amounts of alcohol during a downturn. But that pattern for alcohol doesn't apply to drug use.
ROSALIE LICCARDO PACULA: It's a population that's far more marginalised in the general population so surveys which are used generally to reflect or to understand what’s happening in general with alcohol consumption or national statistics represent the whole spectrum of society.
In the case of illicit drugs, those surveys, the same surveys don't always represent the key targeted marginalised population that is indicative of hardcore drug use.
ASHLEY HALL: So what does the broader economic circumstance mean for that population - is there enough data available to make some strong conclusions about that?
ROSALIE LICCARDO PACULA: There's a couple of interesting findings but we are definitely in the preliminary stages of understanding the data. We just haven't invested the amount of time that has been invested in alcohol research.
This international drug policy is the first composite group of papers that's focused specifically on this question and as such it's opened a lot of interesting ideas in the sense that the research from both the US and Australia showed that periods of unemployment as experienced in the past not the current recession, but previous recessions, are actually associated with increased cannabis use but it's focused among the youth population.
ASHLEY HALL: Rosalie Liccardo Pacula says it's all to do with the relative cost of the drugs compared to the income the user might have, which makes a policy focus on youth unemployment all the more important.
Especially in places like the US, where fewer than half of all young people have a job, and in Ireland, where the youth unemployment rate is more than 27 per cent.
ROSALIE LICCARDO PACULA: Youth are also a lot more likely to report selling drugs illegally. So there's this question because youth unemployment is high relative to adult unemployment and gets worse during periods recession, the attractiveness of income from the black market becomes harder to resist.
ASHLEY HALL: Of course another way to tackle that problem is to do away with the black market by decriminalising drug use, the way Portugal did a decade ago.
The Portugese drug czar, Joao Goulão, says that led to a dramatic decrease in drug use by young people, and in HIV infections among drug users. But he fears those gains will be reversed as the government's austerity measures bite.
JOAO GOULÃO: In our culture, what we fear is alcohol consumption, the increase of alcohol consumption. Problematic, the alcohol consumption. But also illicit drugs and the return of the public enemy number one, which is heroin.
ASHLEY HALL: Looking at drug and alcohol policy through the prism of economics is unusual. But Rosalie Liccardo Pacula says it's a useful tool.
ROSALIE LICCARDO PACULA: Yes there is economic mechanisms that do work in changing behaviour but no, they're not the only mechanism. They are important to consider but they are not, clearly not, homogeneous across all segments of society.
ASHLEY HALL: Although the research was based on smaller downturns than the current global economic malaise. So she says what happens next is anyone's guess.
ROSALIE LICCARDO PACULA: Clearly, long-term downturns of the intensity of what we're seeing right now could have a very different effect. Other mechanisms will come into play and the economic mechanisms may not dominate.
ASHLEY HALL: The research papers were launched in London overnight as part of a special issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy.
ELEANOR HALL: Ashley Hall reporting.