Tom Sutcliffe: Drugs busts do little to crack the problem

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Is there anything more depressing than a showcase drugs bust? There was a fine example this weekend when HMS Iron Duke made its way into the interdiction book of records by seizing five and half tonnes of cocaine off the coast of Colombia – an event that was predictably greeted as a triumph by the Armed Forces minister Bill Rammell and by the ship's captain, Commander Andrew Stacey. And, following the well-established rules of the drug-bust news item genre, we were then shown the secret compartment where the stash was found and given the estimated street value of the drug (in this case £240 million) – a piece of information that is never omitted, but always seems to me to send an oddly mixed message. Just look at how much this stuff is worth, it seems to say, and how relatively easy it is to hide it. Isn't this a business you should be thinking of getting into?

That isn't supposed to be the point of drug-bust stories, of course. They are supposed to simultaneously deter and reassure, depending on who is watching them. "It is a massive blow for the narcotics industry," said Commander Stacey, forgivably carried away by his crew's impressive advance up the drug seizures' leaderboard – and tactfully sidestepping the fact that the narcotics industry seems able to absorb repeated "massive blows" of this kind without even blinking.

In February of this year, for example, a Spanish customs vessel seized five tonnes of cocaine off the coast of Spain – a seizure that didn't put any noticeable dent in the general trend over the last 10 years, which is for cocaine to steadily fall in price. In some cases that's because – in the absence of any decent trading standards enforcement – users don't always get a lot of cocaine in their cocaine anymore. But it certainly isn't because past "massive blows" have had any effect on market demand.

In July, the Home Office reported that there had actually been a small increase in the number of people using cocaine (up to 3 per cent of 16 to 59 year olds having used it, compared to 2.4 per cent in the previous year). They also acknowledged that usage of Class A drugs over the last 12 years has revealed "a slight underlying upward trend, which is now significant over the long term".

Saying that an individual drugs seizure is a blow to the narcotics trade makes as much sense, in fact, as announcing that because you've managed to close down Volkswagen, BMW are bound to have a lousy year. Because while you may have given an individual drug dealer a bad (or even fatal) day at the office, you've simultaneously improved trading conditions for all his competitors. And though drug seizures may be handy for maintaining shipboard morale and giving naval gunners a bit of live round practice when they sink the smugglers' boats, they are next to useless when it comes to limiting the social damage caused by illegal drugs. Actually, "next to useless" is far too kind, because the truth is that the policy that generates these Potemkin village triumphs is itself profoundly damaging, both here and abroad.

Cocaine "only serves to poison our communities", said Bill Rammell, praising Iron Duke's success. He was right, but its impact on this country is as nothing to the toxic effects it has had in Mexico and central African countries such as Guinea-Bissau and Guinea – states in which debilitating corruption (and staggering levels of civil violence in the case of Mexico) is sustained rather than threatened by prohibition.

There must have been a time when Al Capone enjoyed reading about the latest liquor raid and relished the spectacle of a rival's whisky being poured into the gutter for the benefit of the press. And he must have prayed that such "massive blows" against the bootleggers would continue to distract everyone from the one thing that would put them all out of business for good.

Profanity and a case of US double-think

The BBC and Channel Four have recently promised to cut back on-air obscenities, and not before f**king time frankly. Jamie Oliver's current series hasn't obviously suffered from a self-imposed muzzling (though it would be nice if Channel Four could get him to stop indiscriminately calling everybody "bruv") and, if others join in and everyone keeps it up, expletives may eventually recover some of their sadly depleted potency.

One hopes that we won't go quite as far as the States though, where profanity has long been subjected to a curious cultural double-think. On the cable channels, which everyone watches without fuss, it's absolutely everywhere and yet it remains a huge taboo on network television, where even one misplaced word can prompt calls to the Federal Communications Commission.

There was a minor storm this weekend when Jenny Slate, a Saturday Night Live performer "dropped the F-bomb" (as they quaintly put it), and this despite the fact that her inadvertent cuss went out at twenty-to-one in the morning. I doubt that we can, or should want to, go back to a time when the word was regarded as that explosive. But a bit of aftershock would be nice – and we'll only get it if everyone eases up for a while.

You can't beat John Lewis

I don't think John Lewis should worry too much about the mischievous ad campaign that suggests people should take advantage of their customer service to research a purchase and then buy it online instead (the competitors shall remain nameless as punishment).

I mentioned this casually to a group of colleagues and provoked a spontaneous clamour of indignation on the store's behalf, John Lewis clearly figuring in the middle-class heart as an organisation so cherishable you could only match its appeal if you mated a giant panda with David Attenborough.

Shortly afterwards I experienced just why this should be when ordering some bedroom blinds. "You'll have the measurements on file," I told the salesman, explaining that the ones I was ordering were a replacement for a set delivered only a few weeks before that had turned out to be an unsuitable colour. I could have lived with this error of judgement until the cost was amortized but my wife has higher standards (think princess and pea). "Bring them back in", said the salesmen, without prompting, "and I'll give you half the cost back". Try getting that kind of service from

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