Drug prohibition only helps organised crime

Published by The i paper (3rd April, 2023)

The murder of Olivia Pratt-Korbel shocked the country: a nine-year-old girl, shot in the chest by a drug dealer chasing a rival crook into her home. The killer, who shed self-pitying tears last week as he heard the court’s guilty verdict, carried out his bungled hit in a city scared by gangsterism and gun crime. It emerged that he was earning huge sums selling cannabis. After the conviction, Chris Green, an assistant chief constable with Merseyside Police, accused anyone using recreational drugs of fuelling the rise in organised crime and thus sharing blame for such suffering. “If there wasn’t demand, there wouldn’t be supply.”

His intervention was helpful for the government, which likes to win cheap headlines by shifting blame for deep-rooted societal problems and chronic political failures on to people such as drug users. Remember recent threats under a previous prime minister to strip passports and driving licences from “middle-class” cokeheads and dope smokers?

Green spoke out in the week Michael Gove, a former cocaine user, announced the latest ‘crackdown’ on anti-social behaviour and banning of another drug in defiance of expert advice, seemingly on the risible basis that laughing gas canisters were littering public places. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, announcing his own anti-crime initiative, claimed cannabis fumes were ruining children’s lives.

On one level, of course, the Merseyside cop’s argument stacks up – just as there would be no car crashes if people did not drive cars and no war if we all loved one another. He was right to say organised crime is “a global phenomenon.” And let us assume he was not talking about the two most damaging recreational drugs in our society since both are legal: tobacco and alcohol.

Yet ultimately it was a glib statement given that human beings have always taken drugs, millions enjoying doing so each week and even maximum-security jails fail to keep them out, underlining the futility of prohibition efforts.

Green is an experienced police officer who spent time studying criminal networks with the FBI. So he must know better than most that the war on drugs – launched more than five decades ago by a crooked president to shore up support for a real war in Vietnam – has been a disaster, especially for many poorer communities. I have seen the chilling legacy for myself in Mexico.

In Britain, former undercover policeman Neil Woods wrote two fine books to explain how even major drug busts make minimal impact on stopping the flow of drugs and exposing how gangsters grew steadily more violent to win control of such lucrative trade. 

This policy backfiring has been accepted in Whitehall. One strategy review in 2017 admitted we spent £1.6bn a year on enforcement yet drug seizures “had little impact on availability” although there were “potential unintended consequences …such as violence related to drug markets”. Leading politicians across the spectrum, however, remain hooked on failed policies. They ignore the lethal consequences of their blundering approach as prices fall, purity rises, new synthetic products arrive on the market and carnage grows worse in a country that accounts for one-third of all drug-related deaths on our continent. 

This is criminal irresponsibility. The key issue, as recognised by dozens of more progressive nations, is how to curb harms caused by drugs, whether to individuals or society. If the tide cannot be turned, politicians have the moral duty to lessen damage.

Portugal showed the way forward: the European nation with highest levels of heroin use at turn of the century slashed drug-related deaths and use among younger generations by decriminalising possession, focusing on health and treatment rather than punishment. ‘We do not focus on drug problems but any issues people might have in their lives that lead to drug use,’ said João Goulão, architect of their reforms.

This is hardly rocket science: to deal with the causes, not consequences. ‘Even the United Nations is pivoting towards pragmatic models of drug decriminalisation,’ said Steve Rolles, policy guru at Transform Drug Policy Foundation. But our timorous ministers, terrified of a few hostile headlines, double down on a disastrous stance by criminalising possession of nitrous oxide despite use dropping sharply – ignoring warnings from their own experts that the move will be counter-productive and just criminalise more young people.

As other nations from Canada to Germany loosen the kind of restrictions on cannabis that made that little girl’s murderer so wealthy through underground trading, the home secretary Suella Braverman reportedly wanted to upgrade it to a Class A drug, ludicrously placing this comparatively mild drug on a par with heroin.

It is, of course, easy for politicians to pose as hardliners, preach about the peril of drugs, pass a few more laws to stuff more damaged people into overflowing prisons and promote another round of vacuous stunts to stop ‘yobs’. But if they were really tough, we would see some real leadership at Westminster with legalisation and regulation of drugs, cutting off the torrents of cash for violent gangsters, easing routes for treatment and ensuring products on sale were safer. This would lead to lower crime, cheaper policing and less spending on prisons.

Savings could be spent sorting out the atrocious state of mental health services, improving lives in poorer communities and perhaps even fixing the floundering police – who spend more and more of their time responding to incidents tied to mental health problems.

Perhaps our politicians might even like to ponder why many people want to blot out reality in a wealthy society? But one thing is certain: it is prohibition that lies behind the surge in organised crime, the obscene wealth of many gangsters and these tragic explosions of violence. Our leaders outsourced drug markets to the most violent members of society – then blame others for the blood on their own hands.

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