In the war on drugs, why losing wins you votes

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WE'RE at a party, noisy, crowded, which I want to leave, but I can't because I'm waiting for James, and James has given his drug dealer the address of the party; the drug dealer was supposed to turn up hours ago.

I say: 'Can't you call him on his mobile phone?'

'He's switched it off.'

The music is nagging at my inner ears. I think: I'm in this seedy place waiting for James to make this furtive assignation because drugs are illegal, because the Government spends so much time and money trying to crack down on drugs. But they might as well not bother. All that cracking down makes virtually no difference to the amount of drugs people take. It just means they have to take them covertly, make a song and dance about it, hang around lavatories, vile nightclubs, noisy parties, wasting time, getting bored.

Thirty minutes pass; eventually the guy turns up. He puts his arm around James and they walk out of the room with quick purposeful movements. In the car, James gloats over his haul, a cellophane bag of dry greenish- brown leaves and stalks, a quarter of an ounce of marijuana, which cost pounds 45. The price hasn't gone up, in real terms, for a decade: 10 years ago the same bag would have cost pounds 20 or pounds 25. So all that taxpayers' money, all those arrests, all those man-hours spent kicking people's doors down - all for nothing. What a waste.

But you can't blame the government for spending millions on their totally ineffectual campaign against drugs. I'd do the same if I was in their position. This is what I'd do: first I'd get researchers to check the situation out. They'd come back and tell me what I already knew; that people are going to take drugs no matter what; that any money spent seizing drugs is money wasted, because even if the captured consignment has a high 'street value', it is worth virtually nothing to the original supplier, who can stand huge losses; that jailing drug dealers does not reduce the problem, because there are hundreds of people lining up to replace them.

Then I'd think: so what if I can't win the war against drugs? My function, anyway, is still to be seen doing something about it; to appeal to voters. So I'd look at the people I wanted to appeal to most, and I'd try to think of schemes to impress them. I'd look on the bright side: having loads of people taking drugs might actually do me some good, in the long run. I'd spend most of my money on doing dramatic, media-friendly things - flashy drug-busts involving helicopters and boats; arresting three or four kids in leather jackets every so often and talking about smuggling rings. Also, I'd arrange poster campaigns that middle-aged housewives and floating-voter grannies could understand the point of: maybe 'Just Say No' or 'Heroin Screws You Up'. The advertising brief would be a complicated one; the product, my policies, would be aimed at one type of consumer under the guise of being aimed at another.

Just look at this story, from the Independent on 28 July this year: 'Seven Britons were arrested after 50kg (110lbs) of cocaine worth pounds 8m was seized at Stansted Airport, Essex. It was the biggest seizure there, and followed an investigation, code-named Barracuda . . .' Well, really. And how much did 'Barracuda' cost? It took 'several months', apparently. And look at the result. Cocaine worth pounds 8m. But that's what it would be worth to the guy who snorts it, the 'street' price - paid for grams, thimblefuls. Gross, it costs much less. After all, you have to pay commission to everyone who handles the stuff. It's likely that this 50kg would have passed through 10 sets of hands before it reached the thousands of people who would have bought a couple of hundred quid's worth. The import price of cocaine is about 8 per cent of its retail price. So the police actually seized pounds 640,000 worth of cocaine.

And now do this quick calculation. Assuming that the authorities were so good at seizing drugs that they managed to get hold of 50 per cent of the cocaine being smuggled into the country, how much would the cocaine importers have to raise their prices? The answer is 4 per cent. Hardly anything, in other words. Norman Lamont does that with cigarettes every year: 10p on a packet. And does everybody give up smoking? Sure they do.

James bunches up the little pack of leaves and stalks and puts it in his pocket. He paid pounds 45 for it. The guy who sold it to him, who buys a pound of it a time, paid around pounds 20 for it. And the guy he bought it from . . . who knows? Three or four quid? You just have to go to one of the places they grow the stuff to see how cheap it is. Selling drugs in northern Europe is a bit like selling water to rich people in the desert; it's worth something to them, because they have no way of getting any. But how much would it hurt you, as a fabulously rich water importer, to read headlines saying: 'Fifty barrels of water, worth an estimated pounds 8m, have been seized at Assab airport'? My guess is, not much.

'Oh my God,' says James.


'Don't look] I'll just . . . drive . . .'

'Where?' James puts the key in the ignition, turns the key, moves out into the empty road. A man, forlorn-looking, walks along the pavement in a raincoat.

James says: 'Sorry . . . I just . . .'

I say: 'Never mind. You enjoy it really. It just makes it more fun, doesn't it.'

'No. I wish they'd legalise it.'

I say: 'It is legal - for wealthy white executives like yourself.'

'I suppose so . . . I just, you know, get . . .'

Yes, I know. In the end, James prefers dope to be illegal; it adds a little piquancy to the experience. And the importers like it, too - they make more money. And, simply by not legalising it, the Government gets more votes.

James parks the car. 'Fancy a joint?'

And I think about it for a while, and I wonder if I ought not to be doing something a little more subversive.-