Game over for the war on drugs?

Published by The i paper (25th June, 2018)

It seems incredible that it is just two weeks since I was with a single mother and her son in Toronto as they saw doctors and obtained drugs prescribed for the 12-year-old child’s epilepsy. As the father of a child who suffers from the same devastating condition, it was fascinating to see how cannabis treatments have gone mainstream in Canadian medicine. Since then Charlotte Caldwell and her son Billy have become household names after taking on the home office that stopped them using crucial treatments in this country.

Ministers were little match for the indefatigable Caldwell. Her life has been dedicated to fighting for Billy’s welfare since his birth, and in just ten days she transformed the British drug debate. ‘Never underestimate the power of a mother’s love,’ she told the Politics Festival in London. This force, aided by many other families, has smashed through the dam blocking reform at Westminster. As William Hague responded, Billy’s case provided ‘one of those illuminating moments when a long-standing policy is revealed to be inappropriate, ineffective and utterly out of date’.

The former foreign minister traipsed down a well-worn path of politicians daring to tell the truth on drugs only after leaving office. Nonetheless his Daily Telegraph article was spot on, urging ministers to see that wider reform of cannabis laws is economically and socially beneficial. His arguments were familiar but well-made: use of the drug is ubiquitous, the law is not credible, police forces have abandoned the fight, potency is rising on the streets, money is wasted trying to punish people pointlessly. He echoed something I pointed out in a think tank publication: this could be liberating for the Tories, and in keeping with their history.

Suddenly the march towards state sanction of medical marijuana feels unstoppable, not least when so heavily supported by the public, while we have lurched forward significantly in the separate debate on recreational cannabis. In the United States, change came after soccer moms adopted the cause on child safety grounds – to protect kids from adulterated products and criminal gangs – rather than just hippies seeking freedom to smoke spliffs.

We are seeing the same shift here. Ed Miliband, another former party leader, bridged the political divide to back Hague’s demand. It has long been pushed by some Liberal Democrats such as Nick Clegg – while Iain Duncan Smith popping up on the radio to counter progress should reassure any waverers reform makes sense. But this is the easy bit. Polls show a majority of voters support a softer stance on cannabis and, for all its issues, rightly see it as less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. The walls of prohibition are starting to tumble down, fanned by cash-strapped police fed up wasting their time on cannabis.

Yet the same arguments made by the likes of Hague, Clegg and Miliband against prohibition of cannabis pertain to other drugs, despite stronger public scepticism and depressing political timidity. Indeed while there is clear injustice in people criminalised and jailed over cannabis, the failure to legalise and regulate drugs such as cocaine and heroin is more corrosive. This is where we need real bravery and leadership.

It is almost boring to recite the evidence again showing how the war of drugs backfired so disastrously, impacting painfully on some of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. The rising potency, the falling prices, the police frustration, the prolific drug use even in prisons. Globalisation and technology intensified problems, with new drugs created in Asia, sold online and difficult to detect through traditional tactics. Gangsters feud over vast profits of an unfettered £10.7bn market, leading to spiralling violence. ‘It is likely the drugs market and associated crime will continue to grow and cause increasing harm to the UK,’ warned the National Crime Agency last month.

As Hague said on cannabis, if a drug is illegal users wanting treatment may be reluctant to seek help. Sadly, Britain’s focus on punishment rather than reducing harm sparked a surge in drug-related deaths, which swelled to record levels, in another testament to Theresa May’s dismal home office tenure. Our nation has Europe’s highest proportion of heroin users and almost one-third of the continent’s drug overdoses. If we had followed Portugal’s bold lead in decriminalisation, experts estimate some 40 lives might be saved each week.

These are wearily familiar arguments. Yet a superb new book by Neil Woods, a former undercover cop, reminds us how the war on drugs was imported from the United States and devastated a successful British approach focused on helping addicts and cutting use. This dates back to nineteenth century outcries over gin, when even conservative icons such as the Duke of Wellington opted for regulation and licensing over prohibition. For many years Britain adopted a similar pragmatic stance on heroin, enabling addicts to get the drug on prescription and thus contribute to society. Then came hysteria and bans, driving users underground to buy unreliable products from gangsters, often funded by burglary and theft. This led inevitably to rising deaths, more crime and greater corruption.

Now drug users clog our prisons. Problem heroin addicts, often self-medicating to cope with past traumas, comprise 0.2 per cent of the population but account for half of Britain’s acquisitive crime. And Woods shows in Drug Wars that each generation of crooks has became more vicious as they fight to control of a market handed to them by the state. Now we have nihilistic teenagers shooting each other on the streets. This carnage is the direct result of tough talk masking the weakness of politicians. From hash to heroin, cocaine to crystal meth, this war on drugs is alien to our culture, our history and our traditions. As Hague said, we must focus on sorting out this failed policy.

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