The same old mistakes in a doomed war on drugs

Published by The ipaper (16th July, 2017)

The Home Office released its long-awaited new drugs strategy on Friday. Given that it was two years late, and given the rapid pace of global reform and a wounded government searching for meaning beyond Brexit, it was fair to expect this might be a significant moment. No such luck. Once again, blinkered British politicians ignored a growing mountain of evidence by sticking to their guns in their doomed war against drugs.

Is it any wonder that Westminster seems a world apart when its denizens show such tragic timidity? Despite a rising tide of deaths, new drugs coming on the market, falling numbers seeking treatment and fresh tactics seen in at least 25 other nations, the home secretary Amber Rudd still believes focus should be on criminal justice, not health and harm reduction. Her position is crass, callous and defies credibility.

The defeatist document, not even mentioning harm reduction, was condemned by campaigners, councillors and health bodies. Yes, they recognised some small steps forward, such as more help for prisoners – although even this raises the obvious question that if high-security jails cannot stop the flow of drugs, how can an island nation with 12,000 miles of coastline? Not least when profits are so huge and one ship’s container could hold the country’s entire annual consumption of cocaine.

Yet again we see the arrogance of ministers in their ivory towers. It is no surprise that they failed to consult on their supposed new strategy; it just repeats the same fatal mistakes of the past. Latest figures show the highest number of fatalities since comparable records began 24 years ago – 50 each week across the UK – with deaths from heroin doubling in three years. Yet they brush aside bereaved parents from the Anyone’s Child campaign, who lost children and now bravely argue for legalisation and regulation to prevent others sharing their agonies.

The irony is that such a stance of controlled legislation is profoundly conservative – and not just because it is based on freedom of individual choice. Bold drug reform, as seen in progressive parts of our planet, is family-friendly, since it protects children. It is tough on crime by cutting off funding for crooks. It reduces public spending, relieves pressure on police and helps struggling communities at home and abroad. Even on partisan grounds it makes sense, since it could help the Tories win support from some young voters lured by Labour at the last election.

Yet those myopic home office ministers did not even bother listening to their own advisers, let alone official bodies. Their hardline strategy ‘falls far short of the fundamental reorientation of policy towards public health and away from criminal justice needed to tackle rising drug harm,’ said Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health. So perhaps I could recommend a book for them to read during their summer holiday that underlines the futility and foolish irresponsibility of their stance?

Good Cop, Bad War is a clunky title for an important book that reads like a thriller. It is written by former police officer Neil Woods, detailing 14 years undercover on the drugs frontline, fighting to convict some of the nation’s nastiest gangsters. His brave work put people in prison for more than 1,000 years. Yet, slowly, he sees the impotence of police efforts to frustrate the narcotics trade and it dawns on him that a punitive response does nothing to reduce demand or help addicts deal with their demons. He observes also at first hand how it feeds the cancer of police corruption.

Meanwhile he sees how prohibition fuels spiralling savagery on the streets. His work begins in almost amateurish style, but as police investigations grow smarter, their criminal foes grow nastier. In the Midlands he finds an outfit using gang rape of wives and girlfriends to ensure silence; in one high-profile killing, only 10 people agreed to testify out of 355 giving witness statements. In Brighton, he learned why there were so many heroin overdoses: dealers killed addicts with drugs to keep customers in constant fear.

Woods became expert in reading streets like an addict, spotting signs undetected by polite society. By the end of his service, shattered by the dangerous work, he likens the drug war to an arms race that is disastrous for all involved. He reckons that, for all the risks he took, for all the users and dealers he helped put behind bars, he disrupted the £7bn British drugs trade for less than one day. “A thousand years of captivity so that a few addicts had to wait an extra 18 hours for their fix. Does it seem wise? Does it seem just? Or does it seem insane to the point of immorality?”

This is a damning indictment of the criminal justice approach – especially when half the inmates in British prisons are serving sentences for offences related to drug use. Yet still our politicians plough on with their pernicious strategy, oblivious to such realities exposed by a courageous public servant. Today he chairs LEAP, a group of former police officers and intelligence operatives campaigning to end prohibition. They point out a simple fact: if we legalise and regulate drugs we cut off a huge global income for gangsters and can help vulnerable people tackle addiction.

Unlike those myopic ministers in their safe Whitehall offices, Woods knows what he is talking about, having seen the seedy underbelly of Britain. He is a man who took immense risks for the benefit of wider society. Now he is frustrated by time-serving politicians such as Rudd who are scared to take the slightest chance with their own careers. As he says, the war on drugs is winnable – but only if we stop fighting.

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