Drugs: Stench of hypocrisy

Prohibition is no answer, writes Eddie Ford

Mike Barton, the chief constable of Durham and the intelligence lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), has come out against the ‘war on drugs’. He joins the growing list of senior officials and dignitaries denouncing the madness of continued drugs prohibition.

In February 2009 the former presidents of Colombia, Brazil and Mexico - all impeccably conservative politicians - declared that the war on drugs was a “complete failure” and called for a new strategy based on “public health”. The current Uruguayan equivalent, José Mujica, has advocated the production and sale of marijuana under a state monopoly. Closer to home, Sir Ian Gilmore, who recently stepped down as head of the Royal College of Physicians, has urged the government to consider “decriminalising” all drug possession - and similar comments have been made by Nicholas Green QC, chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales, believing it “rational” to consider decriminalising “personal drug use”.

Writing in The Observer on September 29, Barton calmly laid out the facts. As a police officer for nearly 34 years, he has witnessed the “worsening problems” of drug addiction, including increased misuse of alcohol - a perfectly legal and ubiquitous drug. Since the disastrous 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, outright prohibition has created near endless “revenue streams to villains” - who, of course, have no qualms about selling adulterated drugs on the streets if it boosts their profits. Most criminal gangs, in his experience, raise income through selling drugs. He claimed that in Durham alone there are 43 gangs involved to one degree or another in the production and sale of illegal drugs - so just imagine how many there must be in London.

In which case, Barton argued, drugs should be decriminalised and drug addicts should be “treated and cared for” - “encouraged” to break the “cycle of addiction”. If misusers or addicts were able to access drugs via the NHS or something similar, then obviously they would not have to go out and buy illegal drugs - therefore cutting off the gangs’ income stream. Creating a safe and “controlled environment”, he continued, is a far more rational approach to the issue. If you started to give a heroin user the drug “therapeutically” then, for example, you could prevent the spread of hepatitis C and Aids amongst needle users. According to figures released on September 27 by Public Health England, 120 cases of HIV in 2012 were acquired through injecting drugs.

Quite correctly, he compared drugs prohibition to the crazy ban on alcohol coordinated by the Anti-Saloon League in the US from 1921 to 1933. Legislative insanity. The Mob’s “sinister rise to prominence”, as Barton puts it, was made possible by prohibition - organised crime finding itself in a position to supply an illegal drug, alcohol, for which there was almost endless demand. Now we are repeating the same mistake, he said, only this time round the fortunes acquired by the likes of Al Capone are chicken feed compared to the enormous profits made by the global drugs cartels.

Of course, by definition it is extremely difficult to calculate the money made by an illicit trade - criminals do not tend to be too keen on independent auditing. In 2005 the UN estimated that the illegal drug trade in 2003 alone was worth more than $320 billion - about 1% of total world GDP. That is almost certainly a conservative estimate. The profit margin for drug dealing ranges from 300% to 2,000% - a pretty reasonable return. According to data compiled by various US law-enforcement agencies, users spend $30-$50 a day on their habit. Nor should we forget the $100 billion spent fighting the ‘war on drugs’ each year across the world. In the opinion of Richard Branson, a campaigner for decriminalisation, if the drug trade were a country then the United States of Drugs would be the “19th largest economy in the world” and if currently illegal drugs were “taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco they would yield $46.7 billion in tax revenue” (The Times, December 5 2012).

Naturally, being a sensible policeman and not a hippy, Barton is not arguing for a drugs “free-for-all”. He just wants, like so many others, an “open debate” on the question. But if the ‘war on drugs’ was actually intended to reduce illicit supply, admittedly a rather fanciful notion, then it has spectacularly failed on any level you care to mention. On the other hand, crime levels would markedly decrease if drugs were legalised. Surely a win-win situation.

Two days later after Barton’s Observer article, the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy published a report detailing how prohibition is failing - illegal drugs are now cheaper and more potent than at any time over the last 20 years. Its study looked at data from seven international government-funded drug surveillance systems - examining at least 10 years of information on the price and “purity” of cannabis, cocaine and opiates, including heroin. It found that street prices had fallen in real terms between 1990 and 2010, while drug potency had increased. Yet the report also found there had been a substantial increase in most parts of the world in the amount of cocaine, heroin and cannabis seized by law enforcement agencies. The war is going well. The authors of the report also concluded that it was high time to consider drug use a “public health issue” rather than a criminal justice matter deserving of punitive action.

No plan B

Predictably, however - though no less depressingly for that - the reply from the home office and other police chiefs was dunderhead obstinacy: no change in policy, no plan B. Drugs are dangerous and must remain illegal to “protect society” and that is that. With perfect tautological logic, a home office spokesman explained that “drugs are illegal because they are dangerous” - they destroy lives, blight communities, etc. Yeah, yeah. Not that the oppressive drug laws themselves “blight” certain communities and sections of society - more like a war on society than a way of ‘protecting’ society. No, drugs - chemicals, intoxicants - are inherently evil and bad. A wickedness that must be stopped.

Also unsurprisingly, Acpo too has hurried to distance itself from Barton’s heretical comments - way too radical, way too sane. Andy Bliss, chief constable of Hertfordshire and Acpo’s head of drug-related crime, fatuously stated that drugs legislation was a “matters for parliament to decide” - buck-passing of the most abject sort - and gave a little homily about the need to be “very thoughtful about setting clear boundaries”, especially for young people. Right, I see - so that’s what the government and parliament have been doing for all these decades - being “thoughtful”.

Of course, the lunacy is compounded by the fact that we have a recent and unarguably successful example of drugs decriminalisation - Portugal. In 2001 it became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs - defined as up to 10 days’ supply. Now possession is an “administrative offence”, as opposed to a criminal one, which means that those caught with drugs are sent to a ‘dissuasion board’ consisting of social workers and psychologists. Far from the country becoming a drugs tourist hotspot, as claimed - or stupidly predicted - by the scaremongers, after five years of decriminalisation Portugal found that the illegal use of drugs by teenagers had significantly declined. Rates of HIV infection have fallen sharply, and the number of people requesting therapy to get off drugs has more than doubled. Possibly as much as €400 million (£334 million) has been removed from the illegal drugs market. A definite and measurable achievement in terms of public health and general societal well-being.

Madly, those opposed to similar moves in the UK continue to use the same arguments as the opponents of decriminalisation in Portugal - regardless of the facts, the war must go on. Those whom the gods wish to destroy ...

We are all familiar with the story of professor David Nutt, the Daily Mail’s least favourite scientist and maybe more evil than Ralph Miliband. He was sacked as the UK’s chief drugs adviser in October 2009 for contradicting government advice on the harm caused by certain drugs - ie, for doing his job. Nutt outlined how taking ecstasy is statistically no more dangerous than horse riding, a straightforward empirical fact - and facts are not stupid things, even if they do not always explain everything. In the same article he looked at how society assesses, or not, various risks and perceived risks. Meaning, as he patiently explained, that the harm from illegal drugs has to be compared to what can be potentially inflicted when engaging in other legal or non-drug-related pursuits. For making such logical and reasonable arguments, Nutt was turned into a virtual pariah by the government and the more rabid sections of the press - illustrating yet again the sheer irrationality that surrounds drugs. First we had witches, now we have drug-pushers.

Given that the ‘war on drugs’ is not only failing, but is positively counterproductive - a war that can never be won - the question we have to ask is: why on earth are they still pursuing it? The only explanation is that it is used as a means of social control. It is aimed at those below and it is very rare now that a top pop star or actor is arrested for drugs use - only the poor schmucks get done. Sir Mick Jagger will never be arrested again - something I will bet the farm on.

Yet use of illegal drugs is just as common at the top. I wonder what the results would be if, say, delegates to the Tory conference in Manchester agreed to be tested for certain substances. I suspect many of those attending would be high on one thing or another. And the same is true, of course, for the City, BBC, newspaper offices, West End and even - heavens forbid - the House of Commons. The hypocrisy stinks.