The war on drugs is a dialogue of the deaf

Simon Davies
Wednesday 27 August 1997 23:02

Over recent weeks a succession of backbench MPs, senior police and community figures have been calling for a rethink on the so-called "war on drugs". Last month the Government called for applications for the post of "Drugs Czar", an impressive-sounding post whose holder will be responsible for harmonising Britain's ragged drugs policy. And following the shooting to death of a five-year-old boy in Bolton, the Prince's Trust and the Police Foundation have announced an inquiry lofty enough to earn the epithet of an unofficial Royal Commission into drugs.

This is healthy. No matter where you stand on the drugs debate, you are likely to settle upon a single point of agreement: Britain's drugs policy is in a mess. In the quarter century since the passing of the Misuse of Drugs Act, the world of substance use has become infinitely more complex. For prohibitionists and reformers alike, the way the drugs scene is currently policed is seen as being often counter-productive, inconsistent and largely unworkable. On that point at least we all agree. And it is a good place to start.

But there is something amiss in the craze to re-assess drugs policy, and it goes to the core of the relationship between authority and young people. Merely changing policy will be pointless if young people become impervious to our efforts - and that, unfortunately, is what seems to be happening. Recent surveys of drug use among children indicate a steady softening of the mythology and taboos that were once the engine room of the war on drugs. Official messages about drug use are apparently becoming less effective. Warnings of hellfire and damnation are not translating into constraint.

Put simply, more young people are using drugs out of curiosity or for self-medication or recreation. And many of them see the practice as quite ordinary. Noel Gallagher tried to explain that attitude by likening drug use to drinking tea, but his point was lost in the subsequent wash of indignation.

Forget the Drugs Czar for a while: the proposed appointment is merely a reorganising of existing national drugs policy. What we need is an advocate to monitor police activities in the youth culture - someone who can perform the role of mediator, think-tank and sounding board - who can build clearer lines of communication between young people and the police. Without this, any meaningful drugs policy is doomed. And yet, at the moment, those lines of communication are deteriorating fast.

Since 1990, police have used a variety of new public order laws to try to exterminate emerging youth environments. Raves, warehouse parties, house parties and dance parties - the hub of "hard core" youth culture - are routinely subject to extreme forms of police action that have on occasion ended with mass arrests and injuries. The result is that an entire generation of young people - generally law-abiding young people - are being turned pointlessly against authority.

Take recent events in Bristol as an example. Last New Year's Eve, local dance organisers tried to stage a free party in an isolated and deserted warehouse. By all accounts, care had been taken to ensure the party was not near any residential properties. Despite this, the police turned up in force and closed the party. There were many injuries in the melee. A thousand youngsters turned in an instant against the police, and their antipathy will now be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

Police tactics are sometimes more subtle. Last month I met a Brighton funk guitar band by the name of Flannel, who told me that local police have forced the cancellation of three of their concerts this year. The justification: iconography. East Sussex Police says the band's icon, an alien head in a triangle, would attract "drug users, anarchists and an undesirable element". The band is a recipient of Arts Council funding. Their most recent gig was a charity concert for local community groups. Hardly a cocktail for revolution.

Such sledgehammer-and-nut stories are replicated across the country. Perhaps the most celebrated case is the fate of a dance party group called Exodus, based outside Luton. A recent television documentary outlined how Exodus were subjected to what could only be described as a campaign of harassment by Bedfordshire Police. As far back as 1994, 3,000 youngsters laid siege to the local police station in protest at what they described as police persecution. Michael O'Byrne, chief constable of Bedfordshire Police, is now at the forefront of the police campaign for the drugs policy rethink.

Justice?, a national watchdog group which monitors police activity, says that relations between police and youth have deteriorated markedly since 1993 - even before the death of Leah Betts, daughter of a former policeman. "A pathology is setting in," says Peter Styles, a co-ordinator with the group for the past five years, "and it is not getting any better."

The problem is not helped by the inconsistency of police tactics. Surrey Police, for example, has a virtual "zero tolerance" approach to dance parties, while the force's counterpart in Norfolk is ambivalent. Internal reports from the two national units established to monitor police activities - the Southern and Northern Central Intelligence Units - indicate widely differing views among police representatives.

A Drugs Czar might be able to iron out these anomalies, but the far greater need is for a change of attitude. While a national intelligence-gathering effort has been established, there is to be no comparable monitoring body for police-youth relations. The Association of Chief Police Officers says the matter falls within the conventional community relations mechanism.

Efforts have been made at a local level to improve relations, but according to Alan Lodge, a Nottingham youth worker who has documented police activity for 27 years, "every meeting designed to work out a solution has been used by police merely as an intelligence-gathering exercise".

This is not good enough. It is not as though we are talking about a few social deadbeats, the hard-core fringe-dwellers that were the targets of 1970s stereotyping. Today, each weekend, at least half a million young people - typically they are employed, law abiding and middle class - take ecstasy. It may be the biggest mass drugs experiment in history. The current haphazard approach to policing it has to change; otherwise, it is going to take more than a few token invitations to No 10 to mend the bridges.

The author is a Visiting Fellow in Law at the University of Essex and a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics.

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