On the face of it, the sharp decline reported yesterday in the availability of heroin in the UK is a thoroughly positive development. If the street price rises proportionately, as crude market mechanics suggests that it should, then the number of people becoming addicted should fall and the number seeking help for an existing dependency should rise. Even at their most elementary, the figures compiled by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) testify to impressive progress in combating this scourge.
Before everyone congratulates each other and hails a battle half-won, however, it is important to look more closely at what these figures may and may not mean. Of course, it is a good thing if, as Soca claims, it has made strides in apprehending traffickers and interrupting the heroin trade. But any statistics on illegal activity are hard to verify. Black markets of any kind are notoriously hard to track. Soca also has a clear interest in blowing its own trumpet. At this time of cuts, it wants the Government and the taxpayer to know that it has been doing its job. There is no harm in that and, if success stories work to deter the criminals, so much the better.
But Soca itself has conceded that other factors also seem to be at work here. One is last year's flooding in Pakistan. Another is a decline – or the anticipation of a decline – in the poppy crop in Afghanistan as a result of blight; criminals calculate futures, too. But both of these will probably depress the trade only temporarily. The effect of closer co-operation with Turkish law enforcement may also wear off as traffickers seek out other routes.
Even in the unlikely event that the current heroin "shortage" were to prove longer-lasting, though, law enforcement has its limits. There are an estimated 300,000 heroin users in Britain. Higher prices, while discouraging use, could precipitate an upsurge in criminality, while those now taking diluted doses will be at risk if purer heroin returns. As a number of projects have shown, there are those for whom a safe and hygienic supply on the NHS is the optimum solution. Yesterday's figures should not be used to justify a refocus on criminalisation at the expense of other solutions that work.