When will politicians quit the war on drugs?

Published by UnHerd (16th May, 2018)

Few dispute that drugs can damage lives, devastate families and are linked to criminality. All the evidence indicates it is prohibition that fuels the deaths, the violence, the misery and the gangsterism that accompanies the trafficking of narcotics. Why then, as sensible politicians around the world start to abandon the destructive war on drugs, do British politicians remain resolutely in the trenches of this self-defeating struggle?

Prime Minister, Theresa May has a particularly blinkered approach, which she admits is influenced by a prominent anti-drugs campaigner in her constituency. ‘It is right that we continue to fight the war against drugs,’ she told the House of Commons six months ago, ignoring winds of change drifting through other nations even as she spoke about the ‘incredible damage’ drugs can do to users and their families.

During her long tenure as home secretary overseeing this futile fight, there was a significant jump in drug-related deaths: the number of heroin mortalities in England and Wales have more than doubled over the past five years alone. Even people sent to jail are not immune, with use of the unpleasant synthetic drug spice exploding behind the bars of these supposedly-secure places.

Fresh evidence of this shocking failure arrives in the annual assessment of serious and organised crime  by the National Crime Agency (NCA). This details a wearily-familiar litany of issues: rising cocaine and heroin production, drug deaths at highest levels since records began; a big leap in firearm offences; young and vulnerable people being groomed to run supply lines; trafficking in prisons sparking violence. ‘It is likely the UK drugs market and the associated crime will continue to grow and cause increasing harm to the UK,’ concludes the report.

How much clearer must they be before realisation dawns that the war on drugs is only making matters worse? The NCA report serves as another savage indictment of dismal policy resulting from political groupthink and fear of change. It follows hard on heels of the British Medical Journal last week arguing there is no rational logic in drugs being illegal and pointing out rightly that driving drug use underground disproportionately hits poor communities. This shows an emerging medical consensus after the Royal College of Physicians became the latest health body to back reform.

Add to this the absurd hypocrisy of a hardline drugs minister who cannot discuss cannabis because her husband’s firm grows it legally. It is painful to observe most politicians simply ignoring the growing mountain of evidence showing they are wrong – along with the increasingly-open contempt of police chiefs for their failed approach. Several forces, frustrated by political inaction, have begun moving openly towards decriminalisation. The Loop, which offers drug safety testing at music festivals, has launched Britain’s first city-centre test site in Bristol with support of local police, councillors and public health officials.

Other nations – from Canada, Ecuador and the United States through to Germany, Israel and Norway – are focusing on harm reduction and moving towards more progressive policies. But here the Labour government’s chief drugs adviser was sacked when he dared do his job by pointing out that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than many illegal drugs. And the Prime Minister swept aside the challenging evidence contained in a Home Office report with a mention in parliament, neglecting to admit it did not ‘observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use’.

This report was informed by the bold moves in Portugal at start of this century, decriminalising drugs and investing in public health efforts to cut addiction. This slashed heroin use, down from 100,000 users in 2001 to about 25,000 today. Building a strategy around health, not punishment, led to more than a two-thirds drop in deaths; over the same period, they rose almost one-third in Britain. But the BBC has just exposed how spending on our treatment facilities was cut 18% here over the past five years, despite the highest fatality rates in western Europe.

If Britain had followed the Portuguese lead, and seen similar decline in deaths, it is estimated 40 lives would have been saved each week. This is the reality of that ‘incredible damage’ done to families that May pontificated about in parliament – as recognised by the brave ‘Anyone’s Child’ campaign, led by bereaved parents calling for reform to spare others from having to sharing such grief. Then there are those lives of young people beaten, stabbed and killed as they become ensnared by gangs fighting over profits of a lucrative trade casually handed over to crooks. Political inertia is failing the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Drug potency is rising and prices falling, proving yet again that prohibition backfires. But politicians keep reaching for their blunderbusses, only to make matters worse as they misfire again and again. One reason for soaring strength of cocaine was a reform giving police powers to seize chemicals used as cutting agents – but instead of disrupting supply, dealers shifted to making stronger products. The same dreary mantras are repeated as they try to look tough in their echo chamber, exposing only their appalling weakness and tragic timidity. Will they never learn from history – or even from all those gangster movies set in the days of alcohol prohibition in the United States?

Some prominent figures claim the war is a myth, impervious to thousands ending up in a prison system that makes it harder for them to stabilise lives. As the NCA points out, the United Kingdom has 11,000 miles of coastline, 3,000 airstrips and 950 ports and marinas to monitor. Yet all the cocaine snorted, smoked and injected annually in Britain could fit in a single shipping container. And now in our globalised world we see the arrival of scores of new synthetic drugs that are cooked in foreign laboratories, lethally strong, sold on the dark web and difficult to detect.

At heart this is a humanitarian scandal. Political irresponsibility is wrecking the lives of many citizens, especially in poorer parts of the country. Some leading figures have even gone from flirting with reform to weaponising the issue on their climb up the greasy pole. It is sickening to see so much time and money wasted at the front-line of this failed fight, on health, courts, prisons and police. Transform Drug Policy Foundation estimates £2bn is spent a year enforcing the ban, yet it creates a trade worth twice that for gangsters with crime costs more than six times higher for the nation.

The drug trade cannot be stopped; crystal meth was even found in the home office. The NCA report highlights again the failure of Britain’s prohibition polices and, thankfully, smarter MPs on all sides are starting to see this. Perhaps, if the new Home Secretary Sajid Javid wants to make his mark, as well as prove he follows evidence and has desire to reconnect his party with younger voters, the path ahead is clear. He must insist on legalisation and regulation of all drugs to reduce harm, seek to help people with addiction problems and stop blowing money. Too many politicians addicted to failure have just ploughed on with a pathetic war on drugs and dozens of people are dying needless deaths each week. This is criminal stupidity.

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