Leading Article: Thinking the unthinkable on drug-related crime

Click to follow
AS ANY sampling of public opinion confirms, anxiety about the level of crime is widespread and acute. The Conservatives, fearful of losing their reputation as the party of law and order, seek a suitable response to each fresh outbreak of indignation. The latest was the Home Secretary's announcement on Thursday scrapping the two most contentious features of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, unit fines and restrictions on the weight given to previous criminal records, and announcing tougher measures against those who offend on bail and cause death by dangerous or drunken driving.

The Prime Minister seemed to acknowledge the Government's vulnerability in his speech last night, in which he invoked the public's help in fighting crime, attacked those he accused of boosting the egos of young criminals, and promised that policy would not be driven by the size of the prison population. Such rhetoric has its political logic, but does nothing to address the issue at the heart of the present darkness: drugs.

A survey published this week by West Yorkshire police showed that 93 per cent of young offenders in three penal institutions were regular drug users. Warring gangs in Manchester's Moss Side, perhaps the most frightening place in Britain, are fighting over drugs - or rather, over the money and power their sale brings. The urgent need for money to feed a drug habit lies behind a high proportion of burglaries and muggings. Addicts become pedlars because that is the only way they can finance their needs. Pushing drugs is a form of pyramid selling, each new victim becoming a potential salesman.

Yet politicians are too cowardly to acknowledge that the present approach to fighting the ever-rising tide of drugs and drug-related crime has failed and will go on failing. Arguably, the huge seizures so triumphantly announced from ports and airports merely raise the value of the supplies that get through.

It is unchallengably true that drugs are at the heart of organised crime across the world, and no less responsible for much of the unorganised variety. The reason is simple. Hard drugs, and the majority of soft ones in most countries, are illegal. It is their illegality that drives up their price - and, for many people, their desirability. The parallel with the prohibition of alcohol in the US in the Twenties and Thirties is exact. Slavery apart, no greater mistake was ever made in America's social history. Prohibition saw the rise of the Mafia, which has waxed even richer on the drugs trade. If cigarettes were declared illegal, the story would be the same: soaring prices, pushers at street corners, addicts stealing to feed their habit, and so on.

This newspaper, along with the Economist and other publications, has long advocated the progressive legalisation of drugs, or decriminalisation under some form of licensing of the kind once strictly applied to the sale of alcohol. There are signs that the police too are now beginning to 'think the unthinkable': on Thursday, Commander John Grieve, head of Criminal Intelligence at the Metropolitan Police, called on the Government to examine whether the supply and use of illegal drugs could be licensed. Commander Grieve was outlining the conclusions of a working group of senior drugs detectives, supported, he said, by about half its members, including himself.

However tightly controlled, licensed sales of drugs would inevitably increase consumption. But, pathetic though drug addicts are, it is not so much the consumption of drugs that fosters crime as the illegal and prodigiously profitable traffic in illegal substances. The shift in police thinking is logical. Decriminalisation would greatly cut crime, but it would increase the burden on the NHS: hence the hostility of health ministers to any relaxation of laws. But the overall gain to the public would be great.

One of the more depressing aspects of public life is that senior politicians tend to cringe pre-emptively from issues on which they expect to meet public disapproval. It is a sign of weakness for the Government to refuse even to debate the desirability of a radically new approach to the scourge of drug-related crime. In the far more emotionally charged atmosphere of Washington, the Clinton administration has begun to question the merits of current strategy, and to set the scene for an intelligent debate. Mr Major would be showing a degree of courage and leadership that many of his detractors believe he does not possess if he were to do the same in this country.