The really tough way to control drugs is to license them

By Simon Jenkins (THE TIMES, 26/11/06):

A young American friend last week visited Camden Lock, north London, and returned amazed. In a hundred yards he was offered brazenly in the street just about every drug he could imagine. It was easier to buy cannabis or cocaine than a cigarette or a can of beer. The experience could have been repeated in any city centre in Britain. The drug market is totally unregulated and as a result totally dangerous. Welcome to 10 years of Tony Blair’s “war on drugs”.

This war makes the war on terror look like a pushover. The latest figures from the European drug monitoring agency indicate that Britain leads the continent in cocaine and heroin use and is equalled only by Denmark for cannabis. Given how often prohibitionists abuse Holland’s proactive drugs policy, it is worth noting that twice as many Britons as Dutch use cocaine and a third more use cannabis. With 327,000 so-called “problem users” (up a quarter on the last estimate), Britain is far worse than France, Germany and Italy.

Meanwhile, despite billions being spent on policing, trade in these substances is booming and price plummeting. Adjusted for inflation, the prices of ecstasy and heroin are both down by a half in five years. Cocaine is down by 22% and cannabis down by 19%. In Britain a gram of cocaine cost £65 in 2000 and £51 today. An astonishing 10% of 15 to 34-year-olds admit to using cocaine in the past year, topped only by 30% who admit to using cannabis. This renders any statistics of “the incidence of crime in Britain” meaningless. A third of the population are guilty. Last year alone 14 new psychoactive drugs were detected by the police, led by the powerful “crystal meth”.

Carel Edwards, the European Union’s drug enforcer, reflected last week that “after 50 years of a moral international crusade to reduce the drugs problem, the results are not exactly brilliant”. To add to his woes, Europe is about to be hit by a record Afghan opium harvest, supplying 90% of its consumption. After the 2001 invasion, suppressing Afghanistan’s poppy crop was hilariously assigned to the British government. It was like the United Nations assigning Libya and Zimbabwe to its human rights committee. Why should Britain control supply abroad when it refused to control demand at home?

British drugs policy is a disaster. Parliament’s refusal for more than a third of a century even to amend the prohibitionist 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act is the most damning comment on the state of politics today, in thrall to the tabloid mob. The 1971 act must be the only criminal justice statute not to have been rewritten a dozen times by Tory and Labour governments. Charles Clarke and John Reid pass four terrorism acts a year, yet not one to tackle the drug market. The act contributes to the deaths of hundreds of young people each year. It stokes violent crime and impoverishes families and communities, while giving Britain the biggest prison population in Europe. Yet nobody in politics has the guts to touch it.

The police are clearly fed up: 60% of all recorded crime is estimated to be drug related. Last Wednesday Howard Roberts, chief constable of Nottinghamshire, pleaded for the umpteenth time for reform. To a policeman it is crazy for the Home Office to ignore a legal prohibition that contributes to 432 offences at a cost of £45,000 a year per addict, including stabbings and murders. The total price of hard drug prohibition is put by the Home Office itself at a staggering £ 15 billion a year.

Roberts pointed out that the much vaunted treatment by methadone substitution has not worked, with a cure rate of barely 3%. Since local authorities must pay for treatment from their discretionary budgets, they are going for the cheaper methadone substitution option, as result of which more costly residential places in heroin treatment centres lie empty. Yet to the nation the latter programme, costing £12,000 a place but with a success rate of more than a third, is far better value for money. The Dutch and Swiss have achieved significant reductions in heroin addiction by treatment through controlled prescription. They have also achieved a marked fall in crime by addicts. Yet Downing Street seems unable to “join up” its drugs policy as can other countries.

Not just policemen but judges, prison reformers and charities such as DrugScope, Drugsline, Addaction, Adapt, and Action on Addiction cry continually for a review of policy. There have been enough independent reviews to fill a library. I served on one myself, the Police Foundation inquiry into the 1971 act in 2000. Professor David Nutt of the government Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs told MPs last Wednesday about the absurdity of ecstasy, used by 500,000 young people each week, being graded alongside heroin. Yet all Vernon Coaker, the hapless drugs minister, could reply was that drugs policy was “a matter of political judgment”. In other words, he had delegated it to the staff of The Sun.

This week an international group of present and former police chiefs called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is in Britain to lobby for reform. Jack Cole, its American spokesman, points out that when alcohol prohibition was ended in 1933 “we put Al Capone out of business overnight — and we can do the same to the drug lords and terrorists who make over $500 billion a year selling illegal drugs round the world”.

Prohibitionists respond that “if only” these policemen enforced the law and threw all drug users in jail there would be no market for the dealers and no need for addicts to commit crime. Thus a Yorkshire magistrate last week complained about a 15-year-old accused of murdering his brother after seven cans of lager and “several” joints. He blamed government leniency towards cannabis — rather than the magistracy’s notorious leniency towards drunkenness.

The prohibition lobby has held the floor for more than 30 years and has run out of both arguments and time. The home secretary could hire gangs of vigilantes to roam every community and shoot drug users on sight. This might increase street prices, stem consumption for a year or two and deter some middle-class offspring. But this is not serious debate. Southeast Asia has capital punishment for drug use and yet drug use is rife.

I have studied the impact of drugs and regard them as varying from the mildly harmful to the utterly lethal. I would recommend nobody to use them other than medicinally, like amphetamines. But to call for the ruthless enforcement of a law that has patently lost consent (even among opinion pollsters) is not “tough on drugs”, merely a cop-out.

There must be more drug enforcement bureaucrats in Whitehall and police headquarters across the country, achieving nothing, than there are workers combating addiction in the field.

The prohibitionists think that by passing laws they are curing a problem. In reality universal drug availability ensures just two things. An industry catering to almost a third of Britons (reputedly with a turnover similar to that of the petrol or drinks industries) prospers uncontrolled and untaxed. At the same time the quality of its product is unregulated and therefore at risk of adulteration. The dilution of cocaine has recently been shown to be highly carcinogenic. Crooks are making millions out of killing people.

Most drug users can handle the harm it undoubtedly does them personally. To this extent there is no justification for the state interfering in a private activity. As with the control of alcohol, the regulation of outlets should be required only to protect minors, prevent adulteration and collect taxes. Other European countries are moving in this direction, at least with ecstasy, cannabis and heroin.

Britain must find a way of legalising supplies. Only then can smuggling and racketeering be suppressed. How this is achieved is a subsidiary matter and a good subject for a committee. But the prohibitionist softies must first be outgunned. They are the true enemies of drug control. This market will never go away. The only tough policy is to regulate it.

More people die each year from adulterated drugs than from terrorism. The cost of prohibition both to the state and to the community is colossal. The illicit market in drugs undermines Britain’s communities and subverts British values far more than any Muslim cleric or rucksack bomber.

It will never be confronted until the counterproductive prohibitionist 1971 act is repealed.