Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Listed amongst the many things stolen to support drug use is the word “legalise”. The sixties campaign to “legalise cannabis” ensured that the word came to mean “encourage” and it’s difficult now to persuade parents that legalisation can actually discourage drug use. Politicians, of all parties, used to wake up in a cold sweat even dreaming about the word. No longer, both reality and problem have been delegated to a Czar.

He has the proper background. Flexible policing has been buttressing a failing policy for more than a decade and the appointment recognises this. I’ve got a real vested interest, I have children at the vulnerable age and I spent some years as operational head of New Scotland Yard’s Central Drug Squad and was “Crime Manager” at a series of London Police Stations where the current prohibition policy caused growing crime rates to fund drug use.

I still seek “the lowest level of drug abuse with the least detrimental effect on everyone else”. I abhor drug abuse and criminal activity. I condemn a policy that profits criminals and I am angered by the drug crime affecting us all. I am ashamed at limited resources available to support victims and their families and I am most angered by politicians who appear to have no licence to even discuss alternatives.

No one likes change because it reflects failure. If there was just one single aspect of prohibition that we should see demonstrated then it is deterrence. It simply fails to deter. Drug use is now part of the social life of about half our children. From cannabis use to registered heroin addicts, growth continues. Seizures by police and customs guarantee a high purchase cost whilst reflecting operational progress in intelligence and co-operation. Demand, supply and profit are not only maintained but are increasing.

Prohibition fails but it unfortunately has other effects. Illegality of supply produces obscene profits throughout the supply chain and gives a monopoly to organised crime.

The public get a raw deal. At the top end we have tremendous profits for criminals with low risk of arrest but growing violence, murder and attempts to corrupt the legal system. We regularly read of drug gang violence and should ask ourselves why it occurs. Criminals fight to expand their trade and make more money. The only competition is between themselves.

At the other end users are stealing to support expensive habits. The true cost of every drug deal falls on the general public in terms of muggings, cars stolen, houses burgled and the increased fear of crime. More than half the victims of theft are actually victims of drug abuse, of a policy of prohibition. Heroin that would cost the Health Service a single pound costs crime victims a thousand and all of us higher insurance premiums.

Senior policemen see that enforcing prohibition causes increases in crime to pay for higher drug costs and they reduce drug policing, concentrating on the supply chain and asset seizures, encouraging cautioning to save court and laboratory time, tolerate personal possession which reduces friction between police and youth, and create the National Crime Squad and Intelligence Service to act as standard bearer whilst freeing other police to visibly reassure the public.

The current pragmatic slide towards tolerating use, whilst continuing the other evils of a high crime rate and criminal profit, is the worst of both worlds. We need change and to openly consider legalisation.

Government credits “market forces” with international power yet refuse to adopt and deploy that power in the drug market. We continue to repeat, ‘We can prohibit drug abuse’. We must take the criminal out of the supply chain and reduce demand. This is attainable by economics and education but not by policing.

Legalisation has been described as “thinking the unthinkable”, but legalisation is not encouragement. It’s just a different policy. It’s a policy of support not coercion, of economic not legal pressure, of education not fear, of information not propaganda and it targets the financial motive of the real criminal not the weakness of the individual user.

Different drugs do need to be legalised in different ways. For some the protection of health and youth could mirror alcohol legislation but others need resources transferred from the police station to the treatment centre. The U K had legalised prescription through to the early sixties. Some clinics implement that policy today producing data that indicates less growth in addiction, fewer deaths, dramatic reductions in local crime rates and the ability to create a supportive environment to educate, withdraw or reduce.

One truth survives the propaganda of recent years. Drugs do not kill, it is ignorant misuse of illegally produced drugs that kills. Whether it be aspirin or heroin, there is always a safer way. Most safe is to abstain but, given current reality, we can pursue reduced use with less damage to society. That means change.

The forerunners of change are a police emphasis on cautioning, multi-agency activity and the court’s growing compassion to the real victim. Sensitive policing acts as a barometer of society’s changing view. The early indicators exist but government fears debate.

A mature government should accept responsibility and discuss options. Too many innocent people are still unnecessary victims of drug abuse. How many friends do you know that have had property stolen from their home or their car. Half are victims of drug abuse. Ever heard that said by a politician? Ever read it in the local paper? Ever figured it out for yourself? Think about it, and then ask if prohibition is the best way to handle drug abuse.

“Legalise” is not a taboo word. Such an alternative policy worked with street bookmakers, with abortion, with homosexuality and even with suicide. In all those cases the effects of continuing prohibition were seen as more detrimental than the effects of the acts themselves.

Ironic, isn’t it. For years senior police officers hesitated to recognise the drug problem since inactivity brought little criticism. For more than a decade they have been responsive to the changing realities of the drug and crime equation and have even examined alternatives. Political stonewalling invites criticism and no Czar can protect them from that. But he can help the discussion.