Drugs: Stop the War

Drugs: Stop the war

Printed on Friday 9 March, 2007
in the Guardian


Defeat is always hard to face, especially for belligerent leaders. But there comes a point where logic forces the hand. In the second world war, after two Japanese cities had been destroyed, Emperor Hirohito surrendered with understatement. “The war situation,” he told his countrymen, “has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” In the case of the war on drugs, yesterday’s report from a Royal Society of Arts commission makes it plain that, by any rational appraisal, a similar point has been reached. Will ministers face this reality, ditch Britain’s failed policies and adopt in their place ones that might reduce the harm that drugs do? Even before yesterday’s report, events this week have revealed the perversities that flow from criminalisation. The squandering of court and police resources – resources which are intended to protect the public – was seen on Wednesday when a 68-year-old grandmother was convicted for growing cannabis that she uses to treat pain. On the same day No 10 let it be known that one of Tony Blair’s aims at this week’s EU summit would be to persuade his counterparts to volunteer forces to destroy the Afghan poppies used to produce drugs. That appeal is being made both because intermittent western attempts to destroy the crop so far have met the opposite of success – the harvest is now 30 times what it was 2001 – and because the British army is concerned that the already considerable risks it faces in Helmand province would be greatly magnified if it fell to it to destroy the $3.1bn industry on which much of the population there depends.

The costs, in terms of criminal justice and diplomacy, might be worthwhile if the consequence was a reduction of drug addiction on the streets of Britain. But that has not happened. When the existing framework for criminalisation was established in 1971, insofar as there was a drugs problem at all, it was concentrated among 2,000 registered addicts and perhaps a few thousand more who were hidden. Academic analysis, highlighted by yesterday’s report, suggests that three decades later the UK had 360,000 problem users.

International comparisons only confirm the picture of failure. Britain has a higher recorded rate of opiate use than anywhere else in the world. Consumption of cocaine and amphetamines is arguably the highest in Europe. The RSA commission, which included no lesser policeman than the Metropolitan Police’s assistant commissioner John Yates, suggest that drug use bears no simple relation to the stringency of drug laws. It points out that relatively liberal policies in Holland and Portugal go hand in hand with lower rates of consumption than are found in Britain.

This bleak picture of failure is familiar from other reports which have come before. But policy, bar a shift in the approach to cannabis which itself has been controversial, has not changed much. RSA polling evidence shows that the public is now readier to countenance pragmatic reform than nervous politicians think. By two to one, people believe that those whose only crime is to use drugs should not be brought before the courts but instead offered help and support. That should create the political space needed to shift the focus away from punishment and towards harm reduction.

One priority is scrapping the residual requirement on the police to waste time on cannabis, a drug that is far from healthy but whose dangers cannot justify making criminals of those who smoke it. It is more important, however, that heroin addiction should be medicalised through rapid expansion of schemes to allow GPs to prescribe it. Not only would addicts then be saved from poisoning by impurities, but they would be spared the daily scramble to fund the next illegal fix. That could cut acquisitive crime at a stroke. A healthy peace dividend could flow to the whole community if an end was called to this most unwinnable of wars.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

Back to MAPS Homepage

London’s Guardian published a stinging indictment of the Drug War, entitled “Drugs: Stop the War”.