Needed: someone to take on this firm

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IMAGINE the worst multi-national in the world. Its mark-ups are exorbitant but its brand image is brilliant - youthful, rebellious, American - and its market just keeps on growing. As with so many industries, its lean and aggressive senior management are not based here, though they employ increasing numbers of relatively low-skilled British workers.

Unlike, say, Hitachi or the Coca-Cola Corporation, this multi- national has sales executives everywhere customers gather - in their streets, in their schools - and these corporate representatives are actually friends of local consumers. The job can be tough, even dangerous, but for successful sales staff, the rewards are good. What penetration] What a business]

One more thing, though: this multi-national is at war with its rivals. It cannot expand its market through advertising or the annual promotion of new brands, so it does it by violence. For, as you have guessed, this is one of the drug companies - and I don't mean Boots.

The multi-national drug trade is the biggest single threat facing millions of Britons. Last year's Home Office survey suggested that about a quarter of young, working- class people in urban areas had used drugs 'recently', and half at some time. Although, taking all drugs including cannabis into account, the middle classes are just as involved, it is among the urban poor that the devastation has been greatest. These are the people who are worst hit by the return of mass unemployment, and whom successive governments have betrayed by failing to provide high quality education and training.

What was the most striking political assertion in yesterday's Independent? Nothing said by a politician. It came from 'Tommy', the 21-year-old Gorbals man quoted by John Arlidge: 'Look at this place - there's nothing. When you hate your life as much as youngsters do here, heroin is the one thing that makes you feel good. When you take it, all your problems disappear. Heroin gives life.'

Heroin gives life. This is the generation which, in this ageing nation, will eventually have to earn the wealth to pay the pensions of today's middle-aged. We can bar our houses from drugs-related burglaries. We can shrug and pay taxes for more police and prisons and customs officers. But none of us can evade the consequences of this successful commerce for ever.

Yesterday the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, reminded us of the 21 per cent increase in registered addicts in 1991-92. But he then went on to promise, in policy terms, more of the same. If this was a real 'war on drugs', then he and John Major would have either changed their failed tactics or been in a khaki tent signing a document of surrender, as a clutch of smirking hoods with folded arms looked on.

What is the centre of their problem? It is money. The vast profits to be made from drugs provoke both the violence and the relentless pressure to recruit new users on the streets, in the schools and even in prisons. Among recent drug users in the Home Office survey mentioned above, 89 per cent reckoned they could 'readily' obtain their drugs locally. Kill the profits of the sales force who make that possible and you go a long way towards killing the problem.

That can only be done by decriminalisation, just as the violence of the Prohibition era was only brought to a close by the end of that catastrophic 'noble experiment'. The force of this argument is finally starting to take it out of the ghetto of radical journalism where it has lurked until now. As a Tory, Lord Mancroft, put it this week: 'The black market in drugs is fuelled by money, so the first step must be to remove the profit.'

A humane, thoughtful Government would do the following. It would decriminalise all drug use, but increase still further the penalties for selling drugs. It would then make heroin and cocaine available, entirely free, to anyone who registered as an abuser of them and who attended counselling. These state drugs-distribution points would be grimly functional places, designed both to bring the street price of drugs crashing down and to strip away the spurious glamour which attaches to the illegality of the habit.

This would be an expensive and, to some people, shocking project. It might push a few people further into addiction. But, quite quickly, it would save both the state and the citizenry an incalculable amount in lowered crime and vanquished fear. Drugs would become a public health issue, rather than a law and order issue.

All of which is very well, but it will be beside the point until mainstream politicians, rather than backstream peers, have the courage to confront their own prejudices. Mr Howard claimed yesterday that such measures to kill the market would somehow create more customers for it. He said young people would be put at greater risk. He is a thoughtful man, but he is defying logic.

So are all mainstream politicians - Tony Blair as well as Mr Howard. By failing to think bravely and clearly, by pushing this off their mental map, they are letting down the very people they want to protect. This is all more about soft politics, 'the art of the possible', than about hard logic. Yet without the support of a single big political name, the Home Office reckons that around 30 per cent of voters might already be in favour of some limited form of legalisation or decriminalisation. Mr Howard is a man who understands the power and ingenuity of the market. Perhaps one day, after announcing at yet another police conference yet another surge in drug misuse, he may come to realise that he cannot buck this one. He can, however, help to kill it.