Leading Article: Let's crack the drug economy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF THE Government wanted to maximise crime levels, encourage burglary, muggings and a proliferation of violent gangs, it could not have achieved its goal more effectively than with its long-standing policies on drugs. The criminalisation of drug use has created a vast illicit economy, in which cash comes from the theft and violence that is destroying many of Britain's neighbourhoods.

As a result of misplaced and failed attempts to reduce the supply of drugs, numerous innocent people have become victims of crimes to which they would otherwise not have been exposed. Why should they pay such a high price for largely futile efforts to stop people taking substances that in some cases are less harmful than cigarettes?

As with US Prohibition in the Twenties, a failed strategy to control drug supplies is fostering organised crime, as drug pushers protect their markets from competition and the police. Already overcrowded jails are being filled with illegal users and pushers, plus the robbers and muggers who steal to buy their daily fix. In jail they find another illegal economy, where addicts live in fear of being caught by warders or, worse, by those who want to steal their supply.

On the outside, criminalisation has achieved little. It has merely stigmatised users and forced them into the clutches of ruthless dealers eager to encourage addiction. Partly as a result of the pushers' entrepreneurial spirit - matched only perhaps by that of tobacco advertisers - drug use has risen dramatically rather than fallen.

Yet against all the evidence, legislators refuse to break with the political consensus and open a debate on reform. Afraid of seeming to condone drug use, they collude in the present disastrous state of affairs. The medical profession has also run shy of the issue, fearful of being asked to supply drugs legally. The police have proved more enlightened, moving as they have towards cautioning rather than prosecuting some suspects.

The way out of the mess is obvious, if apparently radical. The answer is decriminalisation. Not every drug should be treated in the same way. Cannabis should be made openly available to adults and taxed in the same way as alcohol. There is no logical argument for discriminating between the two. Opiates are a different matter. Users of heroin should be registered and offered sufficient amounts at a low enough price to meet immediate needs while minimising the risk of overdose. Contemporary evidence and historical practice indicate that people can lead relatively normal lives in such circumstances.

The case for decriminalising consumption of 'crack' may seem more difficult to make. This is the most dangerous of the illegal drugs, because long-term users risk psychosis. It is also the most addictive; yet that very fact makes decriminalisation compelling. The need to satisfy a crack habit is so pressing that users are driven into prostitution and violence. The first stage in breaking the cycle must be the availability of a reliable supply and contact with remedial help.

If drug use were decriminalised and a cheap, regulated supply guaranteed, the black market that has grown up would be destroyed at a stroke. There would be no money to be made out of selling narcotics illegally and people would not need to resort to crime to fund their habit. Illegal suppliers, deprived of reward from their trade but still subject to stiff penalties, would transfer their energies to an alternative enterprise.

Some people may be shocked by calls for decriminalisation. They are understandably concerned that the state should not be responsible for making whole swathes of Britain dependent on easily available, cheap drugs. It is for those who advocate relaxation of the law to show that their policy would not result in drugs taking the place of the Victorian gin mills in destroying the lives of large groups of people.

Decriminalisation certainly offers a better chance of avoiding this outcome than current policy, which has seen a rapid growth in addiction. But change needs to be accompanied by the provision of improved treatment programmes that actually work. At present doctors cannot agree on which regimes are effective. Many drug projects are run by underqualified staff in shabby premises. Little research has been done by the NHS into the benefits of these programmes.

Rising addiction should not be blamed solely on drug pushers. Legislators must face up to the social problems that tempt many people to choose drug-induced oblivion. Research suggests that alcohol addiction rises with unemployment, and the same may be true of other drugs. It is not enough to accept the dividends of destroying the link between drug supplies and crime and then consign addicts to life in a crime-free stupor.

Where treatment is offered, it needs to include opportunities for training, work and improving self-esteem. People need options to transform their lives, not merely a way of carrying on as before without stealing or mugging.

But the first step must be to destroy the drug economy that is bringing misery not only to users but to millions of people victimised by drug-related crime. The political party that adopts this innovative approach may face initial public opposition. But the subsequent reductions in crime and emptying of prisons would surely bring rich electoral reward for such courage.