Fun and punishment

Crazily, the government wants to intensify the cruel and unwinnable ‘war on drugs’. Eddie Ford, on the other hand, wants to call it off and legalise all drugs

Buried in all the news about Omicron, Peppa Pig, Tory sleaze and Christmas “gatherings” at No10, the government announced its new 10-year policy on drugs.

Of course, the very last thing the government - especially a Tory one - wants to be accused of is being soft on drugs: that is for metropolitan liberals and Guardian subscribers. True, there are some concessions to rationality, when it comes to things like crack cocaine and heroin: they are often viewed now as a question of treatment and rehabilitation - alternative drugs should be supplied, and so on. A step in the right direction.

However, this goes hand in hand with showing how tough the government is - with the new strategy accompanied by dramatic images on the TV and in newspapers of the police battering down the door of an evil drug-dealer who threatens the moral fabric of our society. This is all for the benefit of the Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail readers, it goes without saying - confirmation that the new drugs regime will be a continuation, even an intensification, of the irrational and cruel ‘war on drugs’: a war that can never be won and endlessly piles up the casualties.

And the government, of course, is keen to demonstrate that it has not gone woke. Thus, in order to prove their macho credentials the Tories are saying that they will target so-called “middle class” or “lifestyle” users of cocaine. Such language is obviously a populist-tinged measure designed to be part of its essentially meaningless ‘levelling up’ agenda. Most headline-grabbing of all, they will now confiscate your driving licence and passport - the government arguing that wealthy professionals are increasing exploitative practices through their demand. Consider yourself a wealthy professional? Police officers will be given powers to go through drug dealers’ phones and contact their clients with warnings about the perils of drug use in a bid to spook them into changing their behaviour. Frankly, this seems unlikely. If anything, it will just spook them into finding a new dealer.

The 10-year plan also has a heavy focus on going after more than 2,000 gangs behind the ‘county lines’ phenomenon, which often sees young, vulnerable people turned into cross-country mules. In this way, the government hopes to make thousands more arrests - criminalise yet more people - and invest up to £145 million in the ‘county lines’ programme. That money will seek to target the road and rail networks and in theory protect those exploited by the gangs, supporting any attempt to rebuild their lives (which sounds fine and dandy on paper). Other measures include expanding drug testing on those arrested, developing out-of-court disposal projects to ensure those who “misuse drugs” face tougher consequences, and - we are told - the largest ever single increase in investment in treatment and recovery, which it is understood will be made available to 50 local authorities. So far we have not got a full breakdown of how the £780 million will be spent, but it seems £530 million has been allocated to increasing and improving treatment services.

These new policies come as drug poisoning deaths are at a record high, having increased by almost 80% since 2012.1 The data shows that there is a public health emergency, the pandemic negatively affecting those with addiction problems.

Then there is crime. According to the home office, there were 300,000 heroin and crack addicts in England who were responsible for nearly half of all burglaries and robberies - while drugs were a factor in nearly half of all homicides. The total cost to society of this misery is roughly estimated at nearly £20 billion a year. For what it is worth, the government has promised to improve offender drug treatment across the prisons and probation service as a whole - like increasing housing support and access to treatment for those at risk of sleeping rough. As everyone knows, UK jails suffer longstanding addiction problems - hardly surprising when you incarcerate people for years on end in overcrowded hell holes. Ministers have also said they want to roll out individual employment support across all local authorities in England by 2025.

In a further development, the government is planning to introduce league tables - an old obsession - so that the public can see which prisons have successfully taken prisoners off drugs. Prison governors will be given individual targets on the number of drug tests to be carried out. For the first time, the government plans to publish drug rehabilitation figures in a national league table - almost Blairite. Six new prisons will also have “airport-style” security as standard, including cutting-edge X-ray body scanners, biometric identification for visitors, and drug dogs and hand-held wands at prison gates. Sounds like a perfect therapeutic environment for rehabilitation, doesn’t it?

Party time

Seizing driving licences or passports will really help people get off drugs or deter them from using them in the first place, right? You know the answer. Once again, this crazy proposal will just make things even worse. You lose your job, your means of financial security, because you no longer have a driving licence - therefore you are more likely to get depressed and in turn more prone to addiction and drug/alcohol misuse in general. Real joined-up thinking by the government yet again.

Compounding the hypocrisy, you will not be astonished to learn that illegal drug use is rife in parliament. There are 12 sets of toilets in the buildings and some bright spark went with a testing kit and found traces of cocaine in 11 of them - which is pretty impressive. Over 2,000 people work in parliament and on any given day this number might be swelled by journalists, visitors, tourists, lobbyists, etc.2 In other words, it would have been amazing if you did not find evidence of illegal drug taking - never mind the subsidised bars that are open 24 hours a day for thirsty MPs, peers and others. Of course, somebody did something similar at the Tory Party conference at Birmingham in 2012 - going round the venue and other buildings used by the Tories.3 And what did they find in the toilets? No prizes for guessing that there were sizeable traces of that middle class drug of choice, cocaine. A week earlier, the same investigators discovered traces of cocaine in a hotel taken over by the Labour Party during its conference in Manchester, albeit on a rather smaller scale (the Tories tend to have deeper pockets).

Every Friday in the City of London, apparently, not only are vast quantities of wine and champagne consumed - especially when the bonuses come through - but huge amounts of cocaine as well. Doubtlessly our readers will recall that two years ago Michael Gove confessed to taking drugs on “several occasions” when he was a young journalist - which was a dreadful “mistake”, of course. As for Boris Johnson, he has admitted trying cocaine and cannabis while at university - claiming in a 2007 interview that the substances “achieved no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatsoever”. Indeed, he once joked on the BBC’s Have I got news for you about being given cocaine - but sneezed and “so it did not go up my nose”. In fact, he added, “I may have been doing icing sugar”. If you or I publicly admitted to such behaviour, we would probably run the risk of getting arrested or losing our job.

Last week’s Socialist Worker stated: “drug abuse is a health issue, not a crime”. Rather, we read, “people should be given information and if necessary proper support and medical treatment to recover from addiction” (December 6). This is true up to a point, as people can obviously get addicted to heroin or cocaine (less so). Then again, people can just quit using the drug in the same way many people do with smoking - decide enough is enough. Dependency and addiction are not inevitable, as often implied in government messages or popular culture - a certain path to degradation and squalor. But sometimes people need help to get off the drug and they should get that help, not be thrown into prison or criminalised – once again a clearly crazy approach.

On the other hand, just imagine I went along to the bars and restaurants of the Square Mile after the million-pound bonuses had been dished out and told the revellers that I am from the government - here to help you with your cocaine habit. How would they respond? They would probably look at me bemused, if not pityingly, saying we have no problem - we just want to have some fun. This is what the Socialist Workers Party fails to understand, as with so many different things. When it comes to football, for instance, the comrades can only see profit - believing that the people owning and running these clubs are only in it for the money. The comrades do not get the idea that it is a form of luxury consumption - as is cocaine, which over the years has permeated down to the masses like so many other products and services. What used to be a pretty rarefied class A drug scene in the 1930s has become increasingly broad, but, since drugs are illegal, the price is high.

From our communist angle, we understand that some people might have a health issue with alcohol - or tobacco, or cocaine, or heroin - but also that people want to have fun, to relax and enjoy themselves, and may not have any ill effects. In other words, just as with alcohol and tobacco, all drugs should be legalised and hence quality-controlled, so you always know what you are taking. When you take a sip of whiskey, you know that it is going to be strong. Regarding beer, is it weak or strong? Which means you can limit or control your drinking, depending on what you are used to - which varies enormously from individual to individual, of course. That ought to be the case with all drugs.

London’s Evening Standard had a story recently about the police bursting into the house of a dealer and seizing a whole load of … flour. Yes, incredibly enough, what these people were selling as cocaine was actually baking powder (I doubt if you can get your money back if not happy with the product, or complain to the ombudsman). But the main point to emphasise here is that we need quality control, so people can have fun safely - since, without that, it will not always be baking powder you are taking (or icing sugar). but sometimes drugs laced with dangerous impurities that can prove fatal.

Drugs are as old as human culture, probably going back hundreds of thousands of years. Human beings have drunk, sniffed, snorted, ingested, smoked - got high - either for spiritual reasons or because they want a good party. There is no crime in that.


  1. www.theguardian.com/society/2021/aug/03/drug-poisoning-deaths-in-england-and-wales-reach-record-high.↩︎

  2. parliament.uk/site-information/foi/foi-and-eir/commons-foi-disclosures/human-resources/staff---numbers-2015.↩︎

  3. dailystar.co.uk/news/latest-news/cocaine-traces-found-conservative-party-18565418.↩︎