The thin white line

The 'war on drugs' is off its head.

Jamie Douglass

Topics Politics

The Tories have pledged to make the ‘drugs war’ the top priority in their hard line on crime. In this, they are merely extending the New Labour ethos on cleaning up the slough that is modern Britain. Last month, UK police, in association with Crimestoppers, began a crackdown on drug-related crime, having seized £27,000 worth of Class A drugs in just one week. What is surprising is the geographical nexus for this new campaign – the crack dens of Norfolk have really got out of hand (1).

Drugs are the bogeyman in our twenty-first century wardrobe and – as everyone knows – the best way to deal with a bogeyman is to stick your head under a big fluffy blanket, which we’ve been happily doing for around half a century. Latterly, our big fluffy Blunkett has unveiled a rash of new plans, to ensure that the reclassification of cannabis (it’s still wrong, but we simply can’t be arsed to bust you any more) does not suggest that the UK has gone ‘soft on drugs’. Alongside the confused rehabilitation of the herb’s reputation we have ‘Tackling Crack: the National Crack Plan’ (2), which recognises that ‘crack dealing…is seen by some young people as an attractive career option’, and has resolved to focus intensely on ‘High Crack Areas, or HCAs’. Make no mistake, we’re winning this war.

It’s easy to mock, but then that’s hardly a reason not to. Apart from the ludicrous employment of quasi-‘street’ patois, and the dispensing of the world’s most bizarre TLA (Three Letter Acronym), the idea that the words ‘crack dealing’ can be used in the same sentence as ‘attractive career option’ demonstrates just how confused government drugs policy is. Part Elmore Leonard novel, part New Labour management-speak. Drugs are acceptable. Or not. Or…what?

Nonetheless, the UK incarcerates more of its citizens than any other western European nation (3), and has some of the most punitive drugs laws outside of the USA. Theoretically, possession of a wrap of cocaine can land you in the clink for seven years. Pass some of that over to your friend, you’re looking at pleasuring Her Majesty for life. God be praised, this rarely happens. The City would shut down, and we’d have a recession that made the 1930s look like the promised land. But it could. Practice has long since taken its leave of policy, and speaks to it about once a year, on a bad line. So why?

In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs announced that it was aiming for the eradication of all illegal drugs by 2008 – from the whole world (4). Given that there are only four years left and that UN officials don’t seem to have made much progress, it might be argued that the time has come to agree that their eyes were a little bigger than their stomachs, and maybe they should set a more realistic target like, say, eradicating all drugs from Frinton-on-Sea. So perhaps we don’t have a drugs problem so much as, well, a policy problem.

You might have thought that history was still on the National Curriculum, but apparently it’s not. Anyone who has read anything about 1920s America can tell you what happens when you prohibit an intoxicant that a lot of people want: the suppliers get richer and richer, the quality goes down, and people start dying in droves. So you increase the penalties, and they get even richer, because as the risk goes up, so does the price. Concurrently, the availability goes down, so in fact the price skyrockets. And suppliers start buying guns. Cue turf wars and more corpses. And then you give up and admit that since it was legal for ages and we only started to have a serious problem after prohibition, maybe it’s time to reassess. Sound familiar? Well, it should, apart from the last bit of course. Exemplar: ‘Major players in drug cartels, a rising criminal star, or a young adolescent out to gain respect, all have one thing in common…these days – the availability of and willingness to use, a firearm.’ (5) Not 1920s Chicago, but London circa 7 February 2003.

The reasons behind punitive drug laws fail to stand up to any serious scrutiny. The drug trade is a major source of funding for organised crime. True. The cocaine trade is estimated to produce revenue of around $92billion (6). Almost all of that goes to criminals. And that’s before we count the legal, excise, and custodial cost of ‘fighting’ drugs in consumer countries, let alone aid given to drug-producing countries to persuade them to help eradicate what is basically their main cash crop. One of the biggest markets in the world is subject to no controls, no duty and allows for dangerous monopolies.

However, the link between drugs and crime has been made by the law. Prior to the criminalisation of cocaine and opium, organised crime had no reason to be involved in the drugs trade. But now it makes sense. Way back when, if you wanted to be a crook, you had to start at the bottom, learn the trade by mugging a few old dears, and then – if you were lucky – you might get to hold up a bank with a sawn-off and a stocking for headgear. Nowadays, all a youngster has to do is import one batch of Class A and distribute it, and he’s made. And all of this was made possible by government legislation.

But drugs are dangerous to health. This is a well-known fact. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The wrap of smack you buy down a back alley is extremely dangerous. You have no idea what’s in it – could be anything from brick dust to strychnine to talcum powder – and no idea how much pure diamorphine it contains. Intravenous heroin consumption is one of the few areas of commerce where getting more than what you pay for could kill you. But diamorphine itself is one of the most benign narcotics there is. According to Dr Teresa Tate, who has prescribed heroin and morphine for the past 25 years, heroin is not just ‘a very safe drug’ but proportionally safer than paracetamol (7). The nasty side effect of addiction is regrettable, but given that in the Victorian era many addicts were able to live reasonably normal lives while ingesting whole fields of opium it is surely no more regrettable than nicotine addiction. Less so than alcohol addiction, which actually damages your liver. That addicts steal to fund their habit is likewise thanks to prohibition, which has driven the price up.

The health issue can be extended to other narcotics. Cocaine hydrochloride is not good for you – in the same way that plenty of sleep, a balanced diet and regular baths are good for you – but regulated quality-assured cocaine is bound to be better than a line of off-white unknown. And even that doesn’t seem to be culling the population in line with something so inherently evil that selling it merits life imprisonment. Ecstasy, the devil drug that killed Leah Betts, is statistically safer than going fishing (8).

Drugs might be jostling paedophiles and terrorists for the top spot of social evils, but to be fair to them, they’ve been there for a lot longer. As recently as 1997 a member of Her Majesty’s Government said that if he ‘thought it [were] remotely possible [he] would advocate the death penalty for those in possession of drugs’ (9). In which case, David Evans MP (Conservative, Welwyn and Hatfield) would have neatly solved our housing problems, given that around 110,000 arrests for drug offences are made a year (10). That is not the language of a health campaigner. There are many words one might use to describe the views of Mr Evans, but ‘temperate’ is not one of them.

Government publications are fond of repeating that ‘drugs are a very serious problem in the UK’ (11), but when questioned on specifics, MPs scuttle from the issue like roaches from a light source. Danny Kushlik, chief executive of Transform, the campaign for effective drugs policy, told a Home Affairs Select Committee: ‘When I asked Tony Blair why [we operate prohibition], if prohibition caused more crime than it sought to solve, he told me he was terrified for his children. If I had asked him how terrified he was about his children, that would have been a bloody good answer, but that was not the question I asked and seemed to miss the point a little.’ (12)

With morality so inexpedient as a political platform today, no wonder that the prohibitionist lobby are casting around for validation – leading to some fairly liberal interpretations of evidence. When the Chief Constable of North Wales called for a rethink of drug policies, veteran Daily Mailite and moral campaigner Melanie Phillips accused him of ‘staggering and criminal stupidity’ and ‘utterly ignor[ing] pharmacology, social history, law and the evidence of our own eyes’ (16). Sounds profound, but a touch misleading. Attempting to call upon pharmacology as a justification for prohibition means having to select your reports very carefully indeed. The ‘evidence of our own eyes’ all too often means the evidence of people who work with drug addicts and the deprived, which is a bit like asking a pest controller about the levels of hygiene they usually encounter and then extrapolating that every house in Britain is overrun with rats the size of oxen. As for social history, we live in a society in which drugs are illegal, so there is no ‘control’ against which to measure. And one might think that a Chief Constable was in a reasonably educated position to pontificate about the law.

Rational debate is missing from the drugs issue. In fact, you wonder whether the prohibitionists have any rational point at all. This is not to say that none exists, just that research is avoided like a Norfolk crackhouse, in case it throws up results that might prove detrimental to the position. The fact that a lot of criminals take drugs means that drugs and crime are linked. But a lot of criminals also live in poverty, and I don’t hear anyone screaming Shavian imprecations about that. A lot of them wear heavy gold chains, come to that, and I have yet to see the government unveil ‘Tackling Elizabeth Duke’. A lot of putative non-criminals take drugs as well; more, in fact.

The government can exhibit pictures of a rotting corpse to hammer home the message that ‘drugs are wrong’, but the second Barnardo’s shows a cockroach crawling over a baby to suggest that destitution isn’t that much fun either, it receives record complaints (16). Now, the latter was sensationalist, but it still doesn’t even come close to the former.

Instead of looking at the statistics for Ecstasy deaths, it is more usual to hear the horrific tale of some parents (preferably middle-class) who lost a child (preferably female and pretty) who took pills (preferably one). That’s not an argument. It’s tragic and heartbreaking, but it should not be considered a point of debate.

Society will continue to have a drug problem for as long as we keep our heads well encased in 32-tog coverlets. Drug use may not be entirely benign, but neither should it stand, totemic, for all that is wrong with society at large. As Edmund Burke almost pointed out, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to stay in bed. The fact that some members of political parties consider the devil’s dandruff to have come straight from Lucifer’s scalp should be held up to the cold light of scrutiny before committing billions to their cause. Otherwise our problem is not so much the crack in our cities as the chasm in our reasoning.

Jamie Douglass carried out postgraduate research into youth subculture at the University of Cambridge, and worked as an intern at spiked.

(1) Drug Abuse and Dealing Targeted, BBC News, 20 September 2004

(2) ‘Tackling Crack: A National Plan’ (.pdf)

(3) The True Price of Prohibition, Danny Kushlik, Guardian, 6 August 2004

(4) UK Drugs and UK Drugs Laws: 1940-2004, Release

(5) Gun Culture Comes into the Firing Line, The Job, 7 February 2003

(6) Cocaine: An Unauthorised Biography, Dominic Streatfield, London, 2001

(7) Make Heroin Legal, Nick Davies, Guardian, 14 June 2001

(8) The Leah Betts Story, Nicholas Saunders, December 1995

(9) House of Commons Debate, 17 January 1997, Hansard Column 525

(10) ‘Social and Legal Correlates and Consequences’, UK Drug Report 2001, DrugScope

(11) Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain, April 1998

(12) Home Affairs – Minutes of Evidence, 6 November 2001

(13) ‘An Icon for Our Moral Decadence’, Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail, 18 March 2002

(14) Watchdog Bans Barnardo’s Adverts, BBC News, 10 December 2003

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Topics Politics


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