I accept defeat in the war against drugs

Prohibition will only work if it can be enforced. Otherwise, it enriches criminals and destroys cities

Ian Broadhurst was a traffic cop. But we can be sure that his death had nothing to do with road rage. It is a fair assumption that the man who murdered him was involved in the drug trade and that the murder weapon was one of the tools of that trade - indeed, of that war. PC Broadhurst may have been unarmed but he was just as much a casualty of war as the British servicemen who have been slain in Iraq. Yet there is a difference. The soldiers are winning their war. The war against drugs is being lost.

The consequences of this defeat are already apparent in towns and cities. Gun crime, once rare in this country, is now almost commonplace. In the shires, the squirearchy has a struggle to renew its shotgun licences; in parts of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and London, criminals appear to carry firearms as a matter of routine.

There are a number of reasons why all this has crept up on us. The first is that many of the victims of gun crime are other gunmen. As a result, the offences are regarded less seriously. Or as an error. As Dr Theodore Dalrymple, the anthropologist of the criminal underclass, has pointed out, the cultural habits of gun criminals are far more likely to spread to the rest of society than vice versa.

Then there is race, with its attendant sensitivities, and insensitivities. A lot of drug-related gun crime is committed by Jamaicans. Some liberals, who would hate to admit this, prefer not to think about it. Some right-wingers keep quiet about it because they are afraid of being found guilty of racism; some others, because they are guilty of regarding black on black violence as somehow less serious. All gun crime is serious. It threatens us all with the long-term consequence; endemic lawlessness and homicide in several of our great cities.

Yet if we think that we have problems, we should look to the Caribbean and South America. Large parts of Colombia are not under government control, whilst Jamaica, which is now a drug entrepôt, has been destabilised. At moments, both Colombia and Jamaica have been perilously close to becoming failed states. Cocaine/heroin is a huge, wealthy and lucrative multinational business. The governments of Colombia and Jamaica are simply too weak to defeat it.

Which is not to say that it is invulnerable. Indeed, it would be possible to devise a strategy to strike at the illicit drug industry. Send tens of thousands of troops to Colombia and keep them there until order has been restored, the drug crops destroyed and most of the major criminals arrested.

Send a second lot of troops to Jamaica, to help that government restore order. Swamp drug areas in US and British inner cities with armed police, to conduct house-to-house searches. Build more cellblocks in Guantanamo Bay to help accommodate the vast number of captured criminals. The longer it takes to allow them due process, the harder they would find it to rebuild their enterprises when, and if, they were released.

Equally, it would be hard to destroy the trade without eliminating its market. So deploy large numbers of undercover policemen to arrest drug-users, while introducing mandatory prison sentences for possession of cocaine.

Such measures might work. Yet it is only necessary to set them out in order to demonstrate their impracticality. The will to implement them does not exist, and never could.

There is a further difficulty, which helps to explain advanced societies' reluctance to take rigorous measures against the drug problem. I once asked Ann Widdecombe a question, to which there came no answer: "By what theory of the state is the Government entitled to criminalise the private behaviour of adults?"

There are answers available. A fundamentalist Christian might well argue that the state has a duty to use the law to impose moral behaviour on its citizens.

For all I know, that may be what Ms Widdecombe believes. But even while she was, briefly, a popular figure, she would have found it impossible to win much support for that view.

Over the past few decades, the libertarians have been winning. The law has virtually given up the attempt to reinforce Christian sexual morality. Some of the libertarians' victories, especially on abortion and divorce, may owe more to fashion than to libertarianism. Do foetuses have no rights? Is divorce a purely private matter? But there can be little doubt about the law's direction, with increasing support from the public mood.

In view of that, our current legislation on hard drugs seems anomalous - especially when 16-year-olds are allowed to buy and smoke tobacco. One half term, a hundred schoolboys experiment with cocaine. Another 100 buy a packet of cigarettes each. I suspect that on the actuarial evidence, the second group would be regarded as more at risk of destroying themselves.

It is hard enough to prevent teenage children from taking illegal drugs. It would obviously be impossible to prevent 16-year-olds from smoking cigarettes: if only that minimum age could be effective.

There is a lesson here. Prohibition will only work if it can be enforced. Otherwise, it merely enriches criminals while destroying neighbourhoods, and even whole countries. Whether or not the panoply of militarism and repression which was outlined above would work, we can be certain of one point. No lesser measures would succeed in eliminating drug-traffickers.

So let us end the conflict and declare a victory. Legalise all drugs for adults. Those over the age of 21 should be able to purchase small quantities from licensed outlets which would hold their licences under rigorous conditions. The price should be kept as high as is possible without encouraging a black market. An amnesty should be offered to all those who have been engaged in drug dealing.

These moves would not eradicate all drug crime overnight. Many drug dealers would immediately seek out new customers among the young. But the loss of much of their existing market would undermine their operations.

Further repressive measures would still be necessary. The current penalties for illicit drug dealing should be maintained and increased, especially for those supplying to minors. Every resource of the law should be used against such criminals, and as the targets would be those dealing death to children, there might be more likelihood of minority communities supporting the police's efforts.

Drug legalisation would have its costs. Some people, hitherto deterred from experimenting with drugs, would take them. They would then discover that they had an addictive personality, and would be destroyed.

But the gains from legalisation would be overwhelming, especially as regards the crime statistics. Moreover, there is no coherent philosophical basis for keeping drugs illegal.

That said, my ultimate argument is not libertarianism, but defeatism. That might strike some readers as ignoble, and I am not particularly proud of it. But I would maintain that, when we are losing a war which is not worth fighting, defeatism is the only rational response.