Only by legalising drugs can we avoid sinking into a US-style gun culture

This country has made a political choice to place the supply of drugs in the hands of criminal gangs rather than pharmacists
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Toni-Ann Byfield is another pointless victim in the "war against drugs". This might seem like a perverse conclusion. Wasn't the seven-year-old gunned down in Kensal Green by vicious dealers who were after her crack-cocaine-selling father? Isn't her death yet another argument for hammering away at the fight against drugs?

No. Toni-Ann was killed, clearly and plainly, by our Government's policy of prohibition. This country has made a political choice to place the supply and distribution of some drugs - heroin, cocaine and so on - in the hands of criminal gangs rather than pharmacists and businesses. Anybody with a legal trade like, say, selling alcohol, has no need for guns, because they have recourse to the police to protect their property rights. The suppliers of drugs do not have this choice, so they tool up to protect their trade from intruders or competitors. It really is that simple.

If the vast market for drugs cannot be met in a legal way, it will inevitably be met like this, in an illegal way. All politicians know this. After years and years of "crack-downs", it is stunningly obvious to all but the most blinded ideologues that the drugs trade will never be eliminated. The choice confronting this country is not between some people using drugs and nobody using drugs. It is between people using illegal drugs that they buy from gun-wielding criminals, or people using legal drugs and far fewer guns floating around.

The political choice we have made comes with a price tag. You don't see the people who pay that price in the news too often. They are junkies dying in squalid flats because they have been sold bad heroin. They are black men shot dead in poor areas. We noticed Toni-Ann only because she was unusually young; a prohibition-related murder in itself is not unusual at all. They are the invisible, forgotten victims of a war that has never worked.

It is often argued that drugs legalisation is a middle-class cause. Legal heroin might look very nice in Hampstead, critics sneer, but on Moss Side it looks like another catastrophe waiting to happen. In fact, it is poor areas that feel the effects of prohibition. Toni-Ann Byfield wasn't gunned down in Mayfair. Entire council estates are not dominated by gun-toting criminal gangs in Cheshire. We already have effective decriminalisation in middle-class areas: it's not rich white men who get busted and jailed for cocaine use, but the poor black men who supply them. It's not the rich who are getting shot yet; it's the poor.

Every time there is a drug-related gun crime (and they happen across this island every hour of the day), we need to remind ourselves of one thing. We choose to create the conditions in which this happens, and we can choose to change it tomorrow if we have the sense.

Nobody will be shot in Chicago today because of a dispute about alcohol. That is because the supply and distribution of alcohol were brought back into the remit of the legal economy in the United States in the 1930s. The problems inherent to a vast illegal trade quickly disappeared. True, some of the gangs transferred to other criminal activities. Most went bust and found their way into the proper economy, sometimes as licensed alcohol sellers. We have travelled so far from that world that it would seem bizarre today to imply there was anything illicit about a liquor store or even a recovering alcoholic in the White House. One day, this is how we will think about the legal suppliers and users of drugs.

If we bring drugs into the legitimate economy, we will experience the same benevolent effects that the US enjoyed after the repeal of prohibition. In one fell swoop, we could bankrupt most of the criminals in Britain, and free up the police to deal with burglars, rapists and murderers.

We choose not to do that. Instead, we have chosen a vast increase in gun crime. There are now three million illegally held guns in Britain, according to the Metropolitan Police, and the rate of increase is dizzying: more than 150 per cent in the past three years. The Deputy Commissioner of the Met, Ian Fuller, has warned that gun crime is "threatening the fabric of London", and nearly all of it is related to the drug trade. All the other reasons why this has happened - the glamorisation of LA-style gangsta culture, for example - are trivial compared with the need that criminal gangs have to protect and extend their trade.

If we do not redress this problem soon by creating legitimate, licensed drug sellers, the whole debate about guns will shift in dangerous directions. We are reaching a point where guns are intruding into the lives of people completely unconnected to the drug trade. Last year, Alice Carroll, 70, was shot in the back as a gunman opened fire on another man near her home in a quiet residential cul-de-sac in Longsight, Manchester. A freak occurrence? Tell that to the mother and father gunned down in front of their seven-year-old son; to the 14-year-old shot down with an automatic sub-machine-gun; the man shot in the head during a "road rage" row; the clubbers, including several teenagers, shot as they queued on one of London's busiest high streets last year.

Once ordinary people begin to fear unexpected gun crime like this - a moment getting closer every day - they begin to believe that they need guns to protect themselves, and a terrible spiral is created. This is the case in the United States, where ordinary people get guns for self-defence and a whole panoply of social problems are unleashed: their arguments are far more likely to descend into shooting, terrible accidents happen when children discover their parents' guns, criminals get even bigger guns than everybody else... anybody who has ever watched ER could continue this list in several different ways.

The arguments for "gun freedom" from the US are just as tediously predictable. Already we are beginning to hear these Charlton Heston-style arguments on the fringes of the British right: Richard Littlejohn and Peter Hitchens have recently argued in defence of the "right" for decent, law-abiding folk to have guns for self-protection, and it won't be long before some Tory MPs get in on the act. The Tony Martin case prefigured how the guns debate will evolve in Britain if gun crime continues to rise at the current rate.

Drugs legalisation - the only real way to slash gun crime - seems a very distant prospect at the moment. Danny Kushlick of Transform, the most prominent and eloquent drugs legalisation charity in Britain, says: "We need to prepare the ground so that in 10 to 15 years legalisation seems like common sense. It's obviously not going to happen in the next few years."

He is undeniably right - David Blunkett blanched at even the pathetically limited moves on cannabis that the Government unveiled last week. Yet by the time we get around to legalising drugs, we might have developed a gun culture that is so entrenched - with ordinary people demanding the right to own guns, and with all criminals tooled up rather than just drug dealers - that we can never reverse it.