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Wednesday, February 27, 2008 

How to lose the war on drugs.

On one level, you have to admire the ambition of New Labour. Not even communist China or Stalinist Russia attempted 10-year-plans; they were rank amateurs compared to the bureaucrats and civil servants behind the scenes given the horrendous task of drawing up 10-year-plans on such various areas of government as transport, children or today's latest on drugs.

Perhaps even Trotsky, the proponent of permanent revolution, would have balked at the prospect of a never-ending war, especially one on such a widely defined and ill-drawn category of substances as drugs. New Labour though, partly down to its now close to 11 years in power, has discovered the optimum way to ensure that you can continue with such a preposterous, ignorant and populist set of policies. Despite Blair's leaving of the scene, Brown and his press team have stolen his clothes superbly well. Blair learned that the best way to brief the press on what your latest policy wheeze is is to release the most draconian, ill-thought out and unworkable part of the plan, which will naturally appeal to the headbangers and suitably piss off the remaining soft rump of the Labour left, and then more quietly let the actual document itself, not usually as controversial and therefore not newsworthy, out a couple days of later.

Hence we've had the morning newspapers screaming at us of how those on benefits who refuse to attend treatment for their drug problems will have their state handouts taken away. This is nonsensical on a couple of levels: firstly, the average weekly payout to the individual on benefits will nowhere near cover the drug habit they likely have if they're addicted, meaning the government's claim that the taxpayer is "sustaining their drug habit" is ridiculous; secondly, it will only make it more likely that those that have no intention of giving up their habit (albeit these are a small minority) will simply lie to those in charge of the programme about their progress. The government's drug treatment and testing orders failed in a similar way exactly because of the level of compulsion involved in them, as well as how they were themselves built on a foundation of falsehood. You have to want to give up your habit; compulsion simply doesn't work, regardless of the political difficulties this entails. The other get tough measure, that suspected drug dealers will have their "bling" confiscated not when they're found guilty but when they're first arrested is just yet another astonishing step in the march towards the end of the presumption of being innocent until found guilty, bound to lead to a myriad of injustices. Jacqui Smith, who by the day seems to be doing her best to rival her three predecessors in sheer knuckle-headedness and illiberality, says that this is all right because if they're found "completely innocent" their property will be given back. What about if they're found innocent of dealing but do have some drugs for personal use then Jacqui? Will they still have their expensive consumer goods stolen by the police?

Much like the war on terror, the war on drugs is a misnomer built on a multitude of assumptions, prejudices and simple refusal to see something approaching sense. Just like you can't defeat al-Qaida and the takfirist jihadists through force alone, with all the signs being that it in fact only makes indoctrination and radicalisation more widespread and even harder to uproot, you also can't defeat drugs through prohibition. Indeed, one of the marvels of this latest 10-year-plan is that we've heard so very little of whether the previous one was a success or not. This might possibly be because rather than reducing the availability of illicit drugs at street level, one of the government's key objectives last time round, all the evidence suggests that the prevalence of Class A drug use has actually increased, especially among under 25s (PDF from Transform which contains much of the source material of this post and is also available on their excellent blog). Reported use of cocaine among 16 to 24-year-olds has gone from 3.1% in 1997 to 6.0% in 2006/07, while use of crack has gone up by 0.1% over the same period to 0.4%. Heroin use rose up until 2001, and has since stabilised, at the highest level across Europe, while Class A drug use by "vulnerable" young people increased by over 3.4% in the space of just one year.

The other suitably stupid way in which the government aims to control drug use is by supply side intervention, i.e. seizing drugs and shutting down the gangs that distribute them, and therefore raising the price as well making them less readily available, which is meant to make them less likely to be used. Quite apart from the fact that if drugs became scarcer and more expensive it would mean that users who fund their addiction through crime would became more desperate and have to commit more offences/robberies/burglaries/thefts in order to pay from them, the price of heroin and cocaine has actually almost halved over the last ten years, as the government itself admitted in an answer to a parliamentary question last week. If you wanted to really drive the skewer in, you could quite reasonably argue that the comprehensive failure in Afghanistan to either eradicate the poppy crop, persuade farmers to grow other crops or to buy it and use it for much needed painkillers is also attributable to government policy in the Middle East, considering the Taliban almost completely eradicated the crop to 2000. It now depends on it to fund the battle against coalition forces and the Afghan government.

The government's entire sheet of claims of success is questionable. It claims that "drug-related acquisitive crime" has fell by 20% over the last five years but the government doesn't even have any statistics on drug-related crime rather than acquisitive crime, as the minister Vernon Coaker admitted that crimes such as robberies are only recorded as robberies, not as a result of drugs or influenced by them! New Labour does have major form in this area.

As mentioned, the report isn't all bad. One of the few bright spots is that it recommends a rolling out of a programme of prescribing injectable heroin or methadone to addicts that don't respond to other forms of treatment. It's well established that methadone is in fact far more dangerous and insidious than heroin itself, which addicts tend to dislike and/or end up getting just as addicted to as they do heroin. "Pure" heroin in its prescribed form is relatively safe; it's the black market that cuts it with other substances that increases the dangers of using it. Providing safe injecting centres and prescribing heroin, with clean needles, battling the plague of Hepatitis C/HIV that goes hand-in-hand with sharing dirty and used needles is one way of massively reducing the cost to the NHS, not to mention that of the crime involved in funding a habit. The support for families, and an expansion in drug treatment programmes are also welcome, but whether the funding will actually be there, or whether effective drug treatment is possible in a prison setting, especially in such currently overcrowded jails is questionable.

The policies that would genuinely go some way towards tackling drugs are the exact ones that governments dismiss and the tabloid press are horrified by. Increasingly, chief constables and others within the police realise that they cannot possibly win the battle against drugs in the way it's currently being fought; it's almost a complete waste of time, raiding and destroying one supply chain only for another to immediately pop up in its place. When a few brave officers stick their head above the parapet and suggest that Class A drugs such as Ecstasy are relatively safe, the brickbats thrown at them are not just directed against the individual that made the comment, but also at any government that considers adopting a more measured approach. The biggest first step Labour could make towards ending the failure of prohibition would be to abandon the class system all together and instead institute something like the scale of harm posed by drugs such as that recently published in the Lancet. From there appropriate regulation of the substances could be defined and organised. Removing or destroying as much of the black market itself, not the supply, as possible is the key; without first adopting an evidence-based approach, we'll simply be stuck in the current mess for ever more.

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I'm not sure if you're aware, but I'd also recommend Drug War Rant and Stop the Drug War on the madness of prohibition.

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