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Britain's Drugs Crisis: Law 'motivates criminal activity': Viewpoint

WE MUST abandon the use of the criminal law to regulate the supply and use of controlled drugs for two very good reasons. It has little effect on supply or use and it motivates secondary criminal activity that is now more dangerous to society than the drug use it purports to limit.

A reluctant awareness of the broad effect of drug legislation now permeates senior police management discussions. The other agencies - Customs and Excise and members of the judiciary, the legislature and the medical profession - all face the dilemma that the current cure may well be more detrimental to society than the disease.

Very few people have ever maintained that the criminal law could prevent the personal use of any substance in private. Most users pass through the drug stage without suffering personal medical harm, without graduating through the range of substances available and without incurring the long-term effects of a criminal conviction or expulsion from school.

Deployments of police and Customs officers have concentrated on the importation and supply routes, and growing resources of manpower and equipment have been targeted at the top of the supply pyramid.

Better leadership, intelligence, international co-operation and training have produced increases in the traditional measures of success: seizures and convictions. However, all agencies estimate an effect on no more than one-tenth of the market.

If the effect of the current policy is minimal on supply and use, then what is its side effect on society?

A basic knowledge of market forces would reveal that the current policy maintains a high commodity price at both wholesale and street levels. Indeed, the high price in the United Kingdom has been used as an indicator of successful seizure rates. That high price produces high profits along the supply chain and gives rise to two secondary crime problems.

The vast nation-wide increases in property crimes - burglary, theft, car offences, robbery - is directly related to the costs of drug use. All the police research indicates drug use by a majority - varying from 70 to 80 per cent - of active criminals. Victims of crimes are more worthy of our sympathy than the users and they alone provide motivation to reassess current policy.

The philanthropic drug dealer does not exist. The current approach ensures that profit margins are high, and we create a 'high profit-low risk' business attracting recruits from the entire range of established criminality. Every new entrant into the supply chain, whether in importation or near street level, has a motive to increase use and to move the base user on to more profitable 'harder' drugs.

Individuals set against decriminalisation quote the 'slippery slope' argument and blame the drug itself or the inclination of users. If the commodity were credit, they would without hesitation point to the banks or other financial institutions for encouraging excessive use and would argue for regulation, nationalisation and supportive education. Yet with drug supply, they ignore their own market and behavioural experience and blame user and commodity.

The drug entrepreneurs are creating an anti-social sphere of activity that treats murder as an overhead, produces a black economy of vast proportions, produces corrupt approaches to the countering agencies, sets a reprehensible example to youth and is motivated purely by profit.

Decriminalisation takes the profit out of the equation and takes the user away from the criminal supplier. Legalisation is not a surrender but a recognition that economics is a more potent weapon than the criminal law.

The aim of society is the lowest level of drug use achievable. The criminal law is incapable of delivering that aim and, ironically, it produces motive for myriad other crimes that injure individuals more demanding of consideration than the user of drugs. It is time for a rethink.

Until last June, Edward Ellison was Detective Chief Superintendent, Crime Support Unit, Specialist Operations, New Scotland Yard. He served on the national team that initiated the formation of the National Criminal Intelligence Service.