Legalise all drugs

Too many arms in Britain? In fact, a 'gun culture' is just what the working class needs, argues Mark Fischer

The response from the government to the tragic shooting of four young people outside a new year party in Birmingham was predictable. More repression, more irrational and counterproductive legislation, more near racist bile. As far as Blair is concerned, it is a controversy akin to manna from heaven - illicit drugs, automatic weapons and gunned-down teenagers. What more could a reactionary politician wish for? In truth, talk of a rampant 'gun culture' in Britain is nonsense. While there has been a rise in the number of gun-related offences in the last few years (running at around 8,000 annually), British streets are hardly Dodge City. True, there is a layer of young people - particularly some black youth in deprived inner-city areas - that have a certain semi-lumpen fascination with supposed 'glamour' crime and criminals. The gangster strand in rap music is a reflection of this social phenomenon, not - as culture minister Kim Howells seems to imply in some of his comments - one of its main sources. It is clear that these unfortunate teenage girls were caught up in crossfire of something other than a dispute about the merits of So Solid Crew's last CD. According to all sources, the incident was drug-related, a dispute between two rival gangs over the control of supply on a particular patch. Overall, the marginal increase in the use of guns on the streets of Britain is associated with the inner-city trade in crack cocaine. Or, more precisely, guns are an indispensable accessory to get ahead in this (huge) sector of the economy, as the trade remains illegal and thus the exclusive preserve of criminals. Blunkett's knee-jerk talk of mandatory five-year sentences for the possession of firearms (partially retracted the next day) is a thoroughly irrational and deeply reactionary response. Criminals - by definition - break the law. While the rewards remain big enough - in this case the massive returns in the drug trade - they will continue to do so, no matter how many laws you pile up. Indeed, more repressive laws are likely to add to the mystique and the gangster kudos around guns rather than turn alienated youth off them. Tougher legislation simply ensure that the guns remain in the hands of people that none of us should trust - criminals and the police. The experience of prohibition in the United States in the 1920s and 30s provides obvious parallels. The 18th amendment, introduced in 1917, banned the production, transportation and sale of alcohol. The immediate effect of this was to drive millions of ordinary Americans into criminality, as they were forced to flout the law in order to indulge in a commonplace recreational drug. Prohibition also tended to dangerously degrade the quality of alcohol available to the public, leading to many deaths and injuries. Suffice to say, the profit rates were stupendous; gangsters such as Chicago's Al Capone became mega-rich, and with wealth came political influence. By 1927, Capone was earning $60 million annually from alcohol sales alone, with associated rackets bringing him in an extra $45 million a year. With these millions behind him Capone could bribe police and politicians of Chicago - to an estimated tune of $75 million. Inevitably, the prohibition of drugs produces broadly the same patterns today. According to FBI data produced in 1998, one out of three robberies and burglaries committed in the US was to obtain money for high-priced, black market drugs. Figures from the same period indicated that up to 40% of the murders in the US's major cities and 20% of its killings nationwide occurred in the drug trade. Unsurprisingly, the UK shows the same essential features: * Half of all property crime (£2 billion) is committed to support an illegal drug habit. * Two thirds of repeat offenders are heroin and/or cocaine users. * 30-40% of the prison population are heroin and cocaine users. * The UK illegal drug trade is estimated to be worth £10-£20 billion a year. For a government that seems so naively mesmerised by the market in other spheres, it is puzzling why Blair's Labour cannot work out the basics of supply and demand for drugs. You cannot prohibit a massively popular, demand-led industry without huge social dislocation. Human societies throughout history have used psychoactive drugs - whether recreationally, or for religious or ceremonial occasions - and are likely to do so far into the future. Attempts to restrict them in today's society simply remove the supply from legal sources and hand it over to organised crime. The drugs trade, along with oil and arms, is now one of the top three commodity businesses in the world and the authorities are powerless to stop it (it makes up eight percent of international commerce and is valued at £300 billion annually). As the website of Transform, a campaign for the legalisation of drugs, notes, "When the trade is in the hands of organised crime, unregulated dealers govern supply at street level. The economics of supply and demand push the price to astronomical levels and a daily habit becomes prohibitively expensive. Consequently many dependent users steal to pay for drugs. As with alcohol prohibition in the USA during the 20s and 30s, violent turf wars are provoked, as competing criminal networks battle for control of the hugely lucrative drugs market. Criminal drug gangs are responsible for much of the armed violence and bloodshed on the UK's streets". It is all very simple, really "¦ The government's response to the tragedy in Birmingham has concentrated on the need to further restrict access to guns - "We will not tolerate an escalation in the number of guns on our streets," Blunkett postures, as if this were the key problem. In fact, today's level of violent crime has little to do with legal access to guns. Historically, restrictions on the right of the mass of people in society to bear arms - once regarded in this country as a right as basic as habeas corpus or trail by jury - have been associated with a determination by the ruling class to control those below. For instance, the late Victorians had more or less free access to firearms. Yet, according to coroners' reports, between 1890 and 1893 there were just 524 deaths attributable to guns - 443 of these were suicides and 49 accidental deaths. Thus, an annual average of just 10 gun deaths were due to murder or manslaughter. Serious controls began as late as 1903 with the Pistols Act, which required a licence for the ownership of certain calibres of weapon. Far more significant, however, was the Firearms Act of 1920. It is important to be clear that what prompted its introduction was not concern over gun crime - between 1911 and 1917, there were 170 incidents in London, an annual average of 24 - but the establishment's deep unease about the class struggle. Civil war raged in Ireland. A revolutionary Communist Party was born, promising a British version of the Bolshevik revolution, which commanded wide sympathy amongst our working class. Even before the Party's formal creation, advanced layers of the working class in Britain had taken a dramatic stand of solidarity with the embattled workers' state - the Hands Off Russia campaign had stopped the loading of the Jolly George with munitions intended to arm the counterrevolutionary Polish intervention against the young Soviet republic. The determination of the government to kill off the Russian Revolution sparked a national network of councils of action threatening a general strike unless British involvement ended. Lenin commented at the time - perhaps a little optimistically - that the movement represented "the same kind of dual power as we had under Kerensky". Meanwhile firearms were hardly difficult to obtain. Millions of demobilised soldiers - overwhelmingly proletarian and deeply alienated from the existing system by their experiences during the slaughter that was World War I - returned to Britain with souvenir pistols, grenades and rifles. So the country was awash with weapons along with the human material that might use them in the struggle of class against class. It was in this context - not any concern for the wellbeing of ordinary people - that the jittery government introduced the Firearms Act, which in substance remains in place as the modern scheme of control. Over the next 20 years or so, the rate of nearly every type of crime - including gun offences - fell. Yet more and more restrictions piled up. Clearly, the agenda was not being set by government concern over 'public safety'. It is a huge weakness of today's left that it does not address questions such as gun control and drugs in a principled manner. People before profits, the manifesto of the Socialist Alliance - supported by the Socialist Worker Party majority - calls for the police to be made "accountable" to local communities. Not to be replaced by the democratically armed community itself. And in that same reformist spirit, as we reported in these pages, there was a pronounced back-sliding by SWP comrades in Paul Foot's campaign for Hackney mayor last year on the question of drugs. The manifesto position of the SA, is relatively healthy - "Legalise cannabis and decriminalise all drugs". SWPers in Hackney agreed to campaign for the legalisation of cannabis - bound to be a "vote-winner", it was said. But explicitly linking this to the SA's call for the decriminalisation of all drugs was rejected (see Weekly Worker September 5 2002). Such pathetic vote-chasing is crass opportunism. Equally to the point, it utterly fails to challenge the ideological offensives conducted by the government. Indeed in singling out cannabis for legalisation it simply falls in behind Blunkett's agenda of creating a rigid distinction between so-called 'soft' drugs - which are to be tolerated - and 'hard' drugs. The latter category, and of course its users, being subject to a mammoth campaign of seizures, spying and repression - sending the price, the numbers in prison and the criminal profit rate soaring higher and higher. The Communist Party unequivocally states that we are "against the standing army and for the armed people" and demands that "the people have the right to bear arms and defend themselves" (see our draft programme). In addition, we call for the legalisation of all drugs, for their democratic regulation by society as a whole. Thus, our programme is not about the 'rights' of drug gangs to spray our streets with bullets, but the right of the working class to arm itself, to take conscious control of the policing of its own communities into its own hands.