The blinkered war on drugs cannot be won

Published by The i paper (12th April, 2021)

The bust began with a tip-off in the Netherlands. This led German police to a ship loaded in Paraguay, which travelled to Tangiers and Rotterdam before docking in Hamburg in February. It had 1,728 canisters of construction putty in its containers. When officers opened a can, they found eight packets of cocaine below a layer of putty. By the end of their operation, they had seized 17.6 tonnes of the drug. Then they discovered a second shipment heading to Europe, supposedly laden with fish, fruit and timber and landing eight days later in Antwerp. Police found another 7.2 tonnes of cocaine among the wood, completing the biggest drug bust in European history.

This was followed by the largest police operation in Belgian history with dozens more arrests. Those detained included civil servants, tax officials and their own police officers, underlining the corrosive power of drug gangs. Police claimed the cocaine seized on the two ships – some destined for British and Irish gangs – had street value of almost £3bn. This followed a raid in Southampton earlier this year, when almost a tonne of the drug was discovered in banana boxes on a boat bound for Antwerp. “Drugs devastate communities, line the pockets of serious criminals and are a serious driver of the violence which ruin young lives right across the country,” said home secretary Priti Patel at the time.

Yet these shipments underscore how it is the policies of her government that assist gangsters in the destruction of lives and devastation of communities. Patel claimed the Southampton raid sent “a strong signal to criminals in the UK and abroad seeking to smuggle drugs into or through the UK: your efforts will fail”. This is abject nonsense. All the evidence – not least the size of those consignments – shows the real failure is prohibition and an outdated war on drugs as prices fall, purity rises, usage soars and bodies pile up in a grim monument to tragic political timidity.

The UK accounts for one-third of European overdose deaths. The Government’s review of illicit drug use, just released, admits that we have the highest number of cocaine and high-risk opioid users. It says there has been a surge in cocaine use over the past decade, with recent rises “clear in most age groups” and purity at the highest level on record due to “increased availability of cocaine across Europe”. Britain is the biggest European vendor, responsible for nine per cent of global dark web sales of fentanyl – a super-strong synthetic opioid linked to 104 English deaths in 2018 – yet there were just 22 seizures of this lethal substance over two years.

The report is one long indictment of abysmal state failure. Cannabis has become stronger in recent years, a routine consequence of prohibition, seen when beer and wine was replaced by hard liquor in the US bootlegging era, since smaller quantities are easier to smuggle. Yet nearly one in four English 15-year-olds have tried cannabis as use surges among schoolchildren. Ecstasy-taking among older teenagers is at its heaviest for two decades. Ketamine use among adults is the highest on record. Needless to say, mortality rates are also at record levels.

Ministers talk of helping struggling communities yet seem shamefully unconcerned about the carnage caused as a result of their stance that fosters criminality, ignoring their own data to double down in a backfiring battle. Now they plan an advertising campaign to tell middle-class cocaine takers that the powders they put up their noses leave a trail of blood behind them. Could these politicians make themselves look more ridiculous, thinking a few commercials might defeat the world’s most vicious gangs who profit from the human desire seen throughout history to get high?

Cartel tactics are ruthlessly entrepreneurial, as I have witnessed in their Mexican homelands. When they could not use commercial flights to courier products due to travel restrictions in a pandemic, they switched to private planes to reach Europe’s lucrative markets. Spanish police have just found a narco-submarine that could transport two tonnes of drugs. Gangs use specially-made encryption apps to communicate on adapted phones. Police have warned this trade inevitably grows more violent as the most savage gangs fight for control of terrain. Belgian police found a terrifying sound-proofed torture site last summer inside some shipping containers, filled with manacles and tools such as pliers, pruning shears and saws.

Spin doctors tell journalists the prime minister, who has taken drugs in the past, as have prominent ministerial colleagues, thinks they “lie behind not just crime but a host of social problems”, while he fights a culture war over cannabis. It is incredible that he cannot, or will not, see the link between poor communities ripped apart by gang warfare, wrecked lives of people unable to access safe supplies or treatment, and his own pathetic policies of prohibition. Meanwhile, the pandemic has fuelled mental health problems and substance abuse, storing up long-term problems including fresh addiction  cases.

Drugs, like drink or gambling, should be regulated by the state, not outsourced to the planet’s most violent thugs so they can exploit human frailty. Clearly, prohibition has perverse consequences, with increased use and intensified criminality – and does not work. An investigation in Texas found the flow of drugs did not even stop in prisons when visiting was banned in the pandemic, so what hope in our island nation with 11,000 miles of coastline and close to 1,000 ports?

It is two decades since Portugal showed an alternative path by putting health, not punishment, at the centre of drug policies, which resulted in plummeting heroin use and falling fatality rates. Several British police forces have defied Westminster to pursue similar policies, as has Baltimore, homicide-ridden home of The Wire. Now Norway is following suit while New Zealand sanctions testing of illegal substances. Slowly but surely, the war on drugs is ending around the world, yet our ministers press on like deluded generals in the First World War, oblivious to the deaths, despair, damage and divisions caused by their blinkered battle.

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