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Christian Guy: We haven’t yet fought a true war on drugs

GuyChrstian Guy is the Director of Policy, at the Centre for Social Justice. The CSJ’s report Breakthrough Britain, which includes a volume on tackling addiction, can be downloaded here.
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Some say de-criminalise, others seek full-scale legalisation. Some focus only on cannabis, others would include cocaine and heroin. Some claim drug use and crime would plummet, while others forecast marginal reductions. Then follows the assertion it would become more difficult to buy drugs if they were legal, and a belief that people would be safer in the hands of state regulation. ‘We have failed’ they say, ‘and it is time to admit it’. We should look to other countries. We should heed the warning of Colombia’s President, who was in London for a conference at the House of Lords and talks with the PM. So went the calls last week on drugs.

Some of these routine calls come from people understandably cautious regarding the Government’s right to ban certain things. Other calls come from a liberal elite who, frankly, want to protect their casual dinner party drug use and see little damage in what they do behind closed doors.

Yet even those motivated by public good and despair at the status quo seem strangely detached from reality, and the sense that decent people want the law on their side.

Aside from worrying weaknesses in their alternative vision, which I will come to, most of these calls to abandon ship begin with the false premise that the war on drugs has 'failed'.

Travel to countless communities in Britain, including many of the poorest neighbourhoods where the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has built relationships, and you will find parents, teachers and children asking not whether the war on drugs has failed, but wondering when it’s due to begin. The same is true for many police officers, probation officers, prison officers and former drug addicts. Baffled, they do not understand the calls to surrender something not yet fought for.

The insightful 2009 report The Phoney War On Drugs by Kathy Gyngell sheds further light on this failure. It reveals that spending on controlling drug supply is minimal – constituting less than a third of the overall drugs budget – and there has been a systematic vacuum of law enforcement in communities up and down the country.

Undoubtedly we need a new approach to drugs policy, but its basis must be the realisation that it is an absent strategy which fuels our drug problems, not a failed one. The stark reality is that drug use, especially cannabis, is often in effect legalised already.

But beyond this oversight and by way of alternative, the de-criminalisation and legalisation camps offer mainly defeatism. Too often it seems they assume, un-ambitiously, that drug abuse is inevitable, that it is a way of life to be managed and regulated as safely as possible. Furthermore, there are profound flaws in the alternative vision they present.

Take their international comparisons. In this debate our attention is often directed to international beacons of best practice which the UK should adopt. Last week Portugal took centre stage. Yet countries that were once the pioneers of liberal policy, such as Holland, are backtracking fast in the face of its failure – visible through the Dutch Government’s recent decisions to ban harder versions of cannabis and to crack down on a wave of drug tourism resulting from its de-criminalising strategy. All this without the potential pitfalls of replicating policy successes from different cultures, such as those featured last week in Latin America, to the UK.

As well as selective reliance on questionable international examples, there is usually a belief within the calls to de-criminalise and legalise drugs that state regulation will bring the black market to an end.

In Bruce Anderson’s article for ConservativeHome yesterday, he proposed licence chemists to manage substance supply at levels ‘which would accommodate an addict’s cravings’, and that we should ‘fix the price at as high a figure as possible without sending the customers back to their dealers’.

First, is there not something deeply depressing about the state working and investing to ‘accommodate an addict’s cravings’? We already see this fatalism through the millions of pounds poured into methadone, which is used as a state-financed heroin substitute and does little to change lives. Legitimate concerns should be raised that these proposals would simply lead to more of the same waste as with methadone: addictions maintained not confronted; people trapped by in substance dependency rather than liberated to progress in society. The danger of yet more such dependency is that no-one leaves it, or that cannabis dependency becomes methadone dependency given its potency as a gateway drug.

Second, the assumption dealers would ‘retire’ or go out of business following the state’s decision to regulate seems a little naive. Experienced and ruthless dealers will work relentlessly to undercut and undermine state-set prices. They will prey on people entering and leaving chemists with harder versions of what they’ve been sold, and they will work to push people onto harder drugs altogether. Again, we see these problems blighting methadone – anecdotally we know most methadone users will use heroin on top, and others will sell their daily fix to enter the often unchallenged dealer’s market themselves. And the UK’s thriving black market in tobacco also suggests these things don’t just fade away.

Third, proponents of de-criminalisation or full-blown legalisation often dismiss the importance of sending a signal in law to children and young people that drug use is wrong and damaging. This omission flies in the face of what petrified parents or struggling teachers want. These are people who are trying tirelessly to set children on a stable path in life and promote positive behaviour. They desire and require the law to be on their side in regard to drugs, and accordingly, they want the police to play their part in getting to grips with the UK’s addiction problem. Then there are the children, as Bruce Anderson’s article acknowledged yesterday, who are deterred from drug use by the law as it stands. I believe the danger of their turning to drugs if the law no longer opposes them is considerable, and certainly not ‘a price worth paying’ as was argued in yesterday’s piece.

So rather than call a ceasefire or wave a white flag to a battle that has not yet been properly fought, and instead of placing our hopes in questionable proposals which offer no assurances of a better future, it is time to start planning and coordinating a proper fight. And whilst the law matters, this has to mean much more than enforcement by policing.

A key reason why people in the real world are baffled by the de-criminalisation call is that in their view the debate about the law is a distraction. It is not even the most important debate in relation to drugs. So yes our law enforcement strategy should be intensified, but in order to fight a successful war on drugs we must do two other crucial things, simultaneously:

1. We should pursue deep-rooted social reform to drive at the heart of society’s breakdown and prevent drug use. If we are to become serious about fighting drugs we have to deal with the demand for them. People take drugs for a variety of reasons, but in the CSJ’s experience there are some common drivers: chaotic and dysfunctional families, leading to family breakdown; educational failure; the hopelessness of welfare dependency and entrenched worklessness; severe personal debt; and a criminal justice system which can make drug and alcohol abuse more likely, not less. Here, therefore, I wholeheartedly endorse Bruce Anderson’s calls for ‘much better education, an end to permissive welfare and early intervention to mitigate the effects of fatherlessness’. There is evidence that through Iain Duncan Smith’s Social Justice Cabinet Committee, and in particular the Government’s plans on welfare and education, this will be achieved.

It is also crucial that we develop effective education and intelligent preventative programmes to ensure children and young people have a clear understanding about the dangers of drug abuse and the devastation of addiction. The disastrously tame initiative ‘Talk to Frank’, for example, resembles a menu for drug abuse rather than a tough and direct prevention effort. It is a lame duck programme and should be replaced urgently.

2. And we have to reform drug treatment by putting full recovery first. Years of waste and defeatism in the treatment field have rendered substance abusers and addicts trapped, fuelling further drug use and illicit trade. Abstinence became a dirty word. Yet the failure to achieve it and move people out of dependency has quickened the revolving door drugs trade, where people struggle to progress from habits and accordingly increase its big business. The Government’s commitment to change the culture within drug treatment to achieve full recovery is welcome, and the delivery of this would be a sensible focus for our political leaders and public scrutiny.

Alongside newly-focussed prevention and treatment, there has to be a vital new role for policing and law enforcement. This has to begin with an unequivocal message which stands against possession, dealing and use. We need to take the handcuffs off our police officers so they are free to fight the problem; forthcoming Police and Crime Commissioners will have a crucial leadership role in setting robust police priorities which incentivise action and force police areas to confront their issues. It is also important that we re-write the antiquated and confusing 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, to bring a sense of consistency and coordination to the law enforcement framework. But we should be clear: drug abuse is an issue on which the state must take a stand in law.

Informed by people in communities up and down the UK, these are three policy priorities the CSJ has set out which would turn the terrible drugs tide that washes over our country. Coherent prevention and life-changing treatment must become our obsession in a new fight against drugs, reinforced by robust law enforcement against possession and abuse. De-criminalisation or legalisation calls are a distraction from what really matters. Instead, we should hear the tired cry of communities on the brink: the war on drugs has not been lost – it is a war we are yet to fight.


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