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Professor Hamid Ghodse, president of the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board, is not the first to observe that Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham have acquired ‘no-go’ areas of ‘fractured communities’ ruled by gangs. But if he were brave enough to venture just a little bit closer to the frontline of Britain’s drug problem he would realise that much of the rest of his analysis, delivered with the board’s annual report this week, is bunk. Making a case for a shift towards treatment and rehabilitation programmes, he claims that Britain offers proof that ‘it is no good to have only law enforcement, which always shows it does not succeed’.
Whatever the solution to the problem of drugs gangs, it is a gross distortion to claim that the British approach to tackling drugs is based only on law enforcement. To the oftrepeated claim by the pro-legalisation lobby that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed, the obvious question is ‘what war?’ The white flag was run up against drugs at least as early as 1997, when Tony Blair’s government moved quietly away from prohibition to a policy of harm-reduction, treating drug addiction as a health problem rather than a crime.
Britain’s cities are not wanting for drug prevention and rehabilitation programmes. On the contrary, drug addicts searching for help are in danger of being smothered with attention from therapists and counsellors. In many cases the ‘treatment’ mainly consists of the state taking over the job of supplying drugs to addicts — entirely free at the point of delivery.
An investigation by the Centre for Policy Studies in 2009 found that just a quarter of the £1.5 billion a year being spent fighting drugs was directed towards tackling the supply of illegal narcotics.
The approach isn’t working. Convictions for the unlawful importation and exportation of drugs almost halved over the last decade, to just 649. Theoretically, drug users can be jailed for seven years for possession of a class A drug such as heroin, cocaine or ecstasy and up to five years for possession of a class B drug such as cannabis. Increasingly, however, these sentences are being commuted, treated as archaic remnants of law. In practice, drug users — even celebrity ones
It is not true, as libertarians are apt to argue, that drug users are merely harming themselves who are often photographed breaking the law — know they can smoke cannabis with impunity and need only be a little more careful in their consumption of class As.
As the risks associated with taking and dealing drugs have fallen, so too have the prices. When Labour came to power, ecstasy pills cost £11. Now their street value has fallen to £4. The price of a gram of heroin has fallen from £70 to £35. For those growing up in British sink estates, a night in the pub is a far more expensive means of entertainment.
The switch demanded by Professor Ghodse away from prohibition and towards treating drugs as a public health problem has already been enacted by stealth. This unofficial policy is failing. Insofar as we have prohibition at all, it is a policy which is bizarrely inconsistent. We lock up for many years Jamaican drug mules caught at the arrivals hall at Heathrow, yet we let off the wealthy the spectator | 3 march 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk and educated customers for whom their cargoes were destined. Drug users are treated as victims, no matter how privileged they are.
It is not true, as libertarians are apt to argue, that drug users are merely harming themselves. Their habit creates an industry which destroys lives. Those who have to live among the ‘no-go areas’ created by the drugs trade must endure daily scenes of violence and squalor. There are several housing estates in Glasgow where children walk over disused needles in stairwells on their way to school, and their parents have learned not to bother calling the police. In these sink estates, drug abuse is tolerated as if it were an inevitable fact of life.
The argument that gangs would melt away if drugs were legalised, regulated and made available through tobacconists is feeble. Gangs are quite capable of existing without drugs: there is plenty of other illicit business for them, from protection racketeering to common theft. All that the legalisation of hard drugs would achieve would be to make them even more available than they are now, which would prompt an inevitable increase in violence, death and unemployability among users.
To be fair, the International Narcotics Control Board has not gone as far as to recommend legalisation, but its report will be seized upon by a growing body of ‘enlightened’ opinion, which includes government drugs advisers and cross-party groups of MPs, that is demanding that drugs are decriminalised. Their arguments must be confronted by the reality: a policy of partial legalisation has been pursued behind our backs for many years. It is this which has failed, not prohibition.