I quit because ministers have blurred the message on drugs

This government is devoid of the real political will to address the drugs problem
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I MUST confess that I hadn't noticed the strong whiff of hypocrisy coming out of No 10 Downing Street, but the young adults of Glasgow sure as hell did. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, attempting to embrace Noel Gallagher was in stark contrast to a vision of a tough Home Secretary desperately trying to get his arm around his own son. Tough on drugs? Well maybe, not sure really. Mixed messages then.

So how serious is this government about tackling the problem? The Government advertised for a "drug tsar", then changed the title immediately to "drugs co-ordinator". Post election realism creeping in maybe?

It announced this week over pounds 200m pounds of "new money" to tackle the problem, yet they might as well pour it into the Thames for all the good it will do. Why do I reject what to many will seem like a reasonable effort by HMG? For the last two years, I have been directing a cross-party response to the problem north of the border and have been as close to the inner workings of government on this issue as any sane man would want to get!

I resigned this week from my post as director of Scotland Against Drugs for one very simple reason: this government is devoid of the real political will to address this problem. We have a culture that endorses drugs and put that together with an almost unlimited supply of drugs on the streets of Britain and is it any wonder that we see more experimentation and a lowering of the age of use? Why is this government so afraid to address the real issues? What is the drug problem?

Well, the global drug business represents 8 per cent of world trade. That incidentally is the same as the oil business, to put it in perspective. The drug trade is ruthlessly executed and supplier-led. It is responsible for 70 per cent of thefts in the UK (the vast majority of house break- ins and thefts from cars are drug-related) and it costs the NHS a huge amount, with drug related admissions to our hospitals rising 10-fold since the 1980s.

So let's drop the notion that this is a victimless crime. It costs us all. Edinburgh University tells us that Scotland has the worst record of drug misuse in the Western world, followed by England. We have the Home Office telling us, a matter of weeks ago, that we are in the midst of the UK's worst heroin epidemic. Drug deaths are escalating; we have a 13-year-old boy dead from heroin ingestion; we have a dealer at 14 convicted through the courts and we have a 14-year-old middle-class girl in Aberdeen telling me that heroin is "the coolest, chicest thing you can do!". I wonder what more is needed before we realise that present policies are an unmitigated failure. Those in authority seem unable or unwilling to see this and the only message from government is that more of the same will do.

Well I beg to differ. I also suggest that current policy, such as it is, is deeply at odds with the wishes of the people, who placed drug misuse number two on the list of things that they feel threaten this country most. Unemployment was number one. All I would ask is that the drug problem be given the policy weighting it deserves.

Current policy is one of reducing the harm that drugs cause, so called "harm minimisation". To suggest that young people should not use illegal drugs is drowned out in a torrent of political correctness, its own form of censorship. This universal mantra has led us to our present position. The policy needs to shift away from its harm-reduction focus to one of intolerance of drugs, forcing a shift in the culture at a government and agency level back in line with public opinion.

It's easy to be pessimistic but I am an optimist and I believe we have the tools to tackle this problem at our disposal. Money, I suspect for once, is not the issue. What is needed, of course, is political will. We are happy to set targets for our schools and hospitals but reluctant to place targets on drug misuse. I wonder if politicians, when faced with the issue, simply see it as an intractable problem and are paralysed by the complexity and magnitude of it all. The trick is to break it down into small digestible pieces and start acting. Let's place targets on drug-related deaths. Ensure that methadone, the heroin substitute, is not used as a tool for social control, but as a weapon in moving addicts to a drug-free state and then into training and employment.

Too radical, too bold, for you? So what is the solution?

Well let me put things in context. The drug business is supplier-led. The profits are huge. As an example, think of the last bank robbery you saw reported in the press. You will have difficulty, because the villains now make their money by dealing in drugs. The Police and Customs, who do an incredible job with limited resources, cannot stop the supply of drugs into the country. In that scenario, the only strategy is one of demand reduction. This is not the same as harm reduction. Education has to be at the forefront and that needs to start at primary school.

Local authorities need to market and make their facilities more readily available to the communities they are there to serve. Private sector marketing could help in this.

Enforcement is key. Firstly, the availability of drugs on our streets must be drastically reduced. Secondly, most young people are law-abiding and as a consequence any tampering with the law to lesson the consequences of drug misuse would simply draw more young people into the scene.

Just because drug misuse is a problem, don't be fooled into taking the knee-jerk reaction of deregulation or decriminalisation. Changing the legal status of a drug will do nothing to alter its safety, but it will allow it to be more widely used.

Combine all these demand-reduction measures with a shift in culture which says drugs are unfashionable would work. To de-glamourise drugs, we need society to become intolerant of the culture that says drugs are cool. The PM should not allow himself to be seen seeking the favour of those that advocate a drug lifestyle.

I simply do not understand the Government's refusal to tackle the issue when we have clear precedents for success. Who in the UK will be accountable to the people for drug misuse. Our "drug tsar"? I doubt he'll be around to evaluate his 10-year strategy. Drug Action Teams? Well, the less said about these unaccountable quangos the better, in my experience.

So we are back to the policy vacuum. To continue current policies undermines all those parents who are desperately trying to keep their kids drug-free.

Comments