When will politicians realise that the war on drugs has been lost?

Published by The Evening Standard (9th August, 2018)

Last year I went on patrol in Dayton, Ohio, with an affable police officer called Andy Teague, who told me that until seven years previously he had never seen a victim of a heroin overdose. Yet in the four hours we spent together there were a dozen incidents on his patch.

This middle-American town is at the epicentre of a drug crisis devastating the United States. A toxic tide of opioids — first heroin, now often man-made substitutes — is killing more people than cars or guns. I saw the corpses in Dayton’s mortuary, where officials logged on to the dark net to see the latest drugs cooked in China. They knew that within months American bodies containing these products would lie in their cold room.

It was shocking stuff. New synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanyl are so strong that nurses can overdose treating drug-using patients, and dealers have died chopping up supplies. Yet the most chilling fact I heard, underlining the tragedy of addiction, came from a user: deaths serve as an advertisement for dealers since they show strong supplies are in town.

Two months later I heard the same thing in Hull as these same drugs began to carve their cruel course through Britain, killing at least 15 people in the Yorkshire port. Such was the desire to capture that first buzz of heroin, to chase the elusive dragon and blot out mental pain, some actively sought the fatal batch. ‘I don’t care about my life,’ one man who had already overdosed once on fentanyl told me. So I am not surprised to see the rising number of fatalities linked to synthetic opioids in the latest drug-death data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

These figures, which show a slight rise in overall deaths, shame Britain. We have the highest rate in Europe, accounting for almost a third of the continent’s fatalities and four times that of many neighbouring countries. This is political failure of epic proportions, a sign of Westminster’s neglect of struggling families. It exposes not just a tragedy of wasted lives but also of wasted public resources.

Problem addicts, a tiny slice of the population, carry out half of all acquisitive crime. They frequently end up in hospital emergency departments. They routinely end up in prison, where many non-addicts develop a drug habit.They symbolise the sense of desolation and despair that clings to some parts of our nation, such as the seaside towns and shattered industrial areas that lay behind the Brexit vote.

Yet above all, they prove the mind-boggling stupidity of the backfiring ‘war on drugs’, still being fought despite decades of failure and flying in the face of all evidence. Why do dealers want to sell a product that kills their customers? Simple. Because minuscule quantities can result in vast profits and are safer to smuggle. As one expert told me, why risk a few kilograms of heroin when you can bring in a matchbox of carfentanyl?

This repeats a cycle seen almost a century ago when the US banned alcohol. Drinkers switched from beer and wine to stronger spirits pushed by gangsters. Cannabis has evolved from an innocuous natural weed with a mild high into much stronger skunk, which poses serious psychological risks for younger users. Now it accounts for 94 per cent of the drug sold in Britain.

This spiral of prohibition fostering stronger products has speeded up with the acceleration of globalisation and technological advances. Many new synthetic drugs are being cooked up by chemists in Asia and sold online. So a nasty synthetic form of cannabis was created — and now ‘spice’ is wreaking havoc in prisons, proving in undeniable style how new drugs evade detection by traditional methods. If you can’t stop drugs getting into prisons, how can you stop them getting into an island nation with 11,000 miles of coastline, 3,000 airports and almost 1,000 ports?

The ONS figures show deaths linked to cocaine rose for their sixth consecutive year to a record level, with 432 fatalities last year compared with 112 in 2011 — and just 11 in 1993. Yet it is estimated that all the cocaine used annually in Britain could fit in one shipping container. No wonder the price has crashed while purity has soared, proving there are plentiful supplies and fierce competition for sales.

This market is handed to the country’s most savage crooks, fuelling the explosion in knife and gun crime. Neil Woods, a former undercover policeman, has exposed in two brilliant books how each generation of gangsters grows more vicious fighting over this lucrative trade.

Yet so many drug deaths, so much of this misery, is avoidable if politicians followed the evidence. Look at Portugal. It switched to treating drug abuse as a health problem, not a criminal justice issue, and has slashed deaths and heroin use to a fraction of our rates.

Things are starting to shift. A few police chiefs, frustrated by political inertia, are adopting more progressive policies focused on diversion into treatment rather than punishment. Some MPs are waking up from Westminster’s deadly stupor. Ministers are permitting drug testing at festivals, the use of medical cannabis and a return to sensible policies of heroin prescription. They have accepted the benefits of supervised drug- consumption rooms, even while scandalously blocking their life-saving adoption.

But still they preach the tired rhetoric of a war on drugs. How pathetic to hear the Conservative Justice Secretary, the Labour Mayor of London and even the Metropolitan Police chief condemn middle-class drug-users for the violence scarring UK cities and developing countries.

The blame for the bloodshed, the chaos, the carnage and the deaths lies with politicians who refuse to face reality. Prohibition does not work — and they should stop attacking others for the tragic consequences of their own grotesque failure.


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