by Michael House, FRGS
Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol and it’s not working with drugs.”
Richard Brunstrom, the Chief Constable of North Wales, made his controversial pitch to his local police assembly last year. He was later supported by General Lord Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Prisons.
In the 1920s, the US introduced a policy of prohibition of the sale of alcohol. The result was the relentless growth of gangsterism, violence and crime, generally. The experiment was abandoned in 1933. Al Capone was put out of business overnight. It is time Britain abandoned her home-grown prohibition, which the Home Office estimates costs £15 billion a year.
Britain’s policy on banning the sale of dangerous narcotics is a mess. The most dangerous drug in Britain is tobacco. It kills over 100,000 people a year and maims many more. It is perfectly legal.
Alcohol kills a few thousand every year as well. Over half of all violent crime in the UK is attributable to alcohol. It is not only legal, but the government encourages 24-hour drinking and the “YOB culture” that goes with it. Libertarians argue that the government has no right to interfere in the realm of what people choose to put into their bodies. That argument has obvious flaws. But if it applies to alcohol and tobacco, it applies equally to heroin and cocaine.
Cannabis has a long history in the Caribbean as a medicine used on islands where doctors are few and far between. It is a well-recognized pain-killer, effective in conditions for which nothing else works. It doesn’t kill anyone, but can be dangerous for people with mental health problems, although not as dangerous as alcohol. Possessing cannabis carries a maximum 2-year prison sentence in the UK. Supplying it carries a maximum of 14 years.
Heroin and cocaine are dangerous, and do kill people, but far fewer than tobacco or alcohol. They are seriously addictive, especially heroin. Huge volumes of acquisitive crime—robberies, burglaries and thefts—are carried out by addicts who cannot otherwise afford their next fix. An estimated 60 percent of recorded crime is drug-related. Because drugs are illicit, there can be no quality control; hard drugs are sometimes mixed with potentially lethal cutting agents. Gangs fight and kill in turf wars over territory. Gun crime grows, with offenders getting younger and younger. Kids see dealers in their flashy cars and want to emulate them. There are three routes to rapid wealth for working-class kids: footballer, pop-singer or drug-dealer.
Our overflowing prisons are filled with dealers and, in particular, drug-couriers, bringing in heroin and cocaine from abroad. Sentences have escalated over the years, with no discernable deterrent effect. Send a dealer to jail and there will soon be another to take his place. A tragic by-product of illegality is that young men and women (more often women) from dirt-poor countries, or working-class Brits who are promised a free holiday, all expenses paid, bring drugs into the country. Often, they swallow them in supposedly impermeable containers—if the containers burst, they die. They are often caught and receive savage prison sentences, often in double figures, for a large consignment. Some of the foreigners are so poor than they are able to send money home to their families from their meager prison earnings.
Police and Customs often triumphantly announce major drugs seizures. The result is that street prices go up, addicts become ever-more desperate for money, and yet more people are robbed and burgled.
Young people rebel—it is in their nature to do things their elders disapprove of. Because they are illegal, drugs are glamorous. Kids use cannabis and like the feeling. It is illegal, but it does them no harm. Therefore, the other drugs that are illegal are probably harmless as well, right? Wrong. By the time they find out the truth, it is too late. And, of course, it brings the law into disrepute when it is openly flouted: 500,000 youngsters use ecstasy every weekend. In a survey, 30 percent of 15-43-year olds admitted having used cannabis in the previous 12 months. If a law is unenforceable, drop it.
There are two possible routes to dealing with the drugs epidemic. One is to destroy supply by destroying demand. Send every user to jail, followed by compulsory rehab. Really make deterrence work. Of course, if parking illegally were punished by death, people wouldn’t park illegally. But there has to be a sensible balance in a civilized society. Zero tolerance would mean billions spent on new jails and on rehab centers and their staff. Thousands of middle-class parents would not relish having to visit their offspring in prison. This option might conceivably work but, for other reasons, it is a non-starter.
So we can go on as we are, sticking our fingers in the dyke as the floodwaters rise around us. Or we can decriminalize. We can license drug production, introduce quality control, tax drugs and sell them at registered outlets or prescribe them to addicts.
The huge savings on prisons (it costs more to keep a kid in detention for a year than to send him to Eton for a year) and police resources, and the revenue raised in taxation, can be spent on rehabilitation centers and sensible education campaigns. Don’t tell boys that heroin will kill them; tell them it makes their breath stink and makes them unattractive to women. Tell girls that drugs will make them spotty and give them wrinkles.
Courage and imagination can beat the scourge of drugs. But no British government will risk being crucified by the tabloid press.
Personal Note: I have no axe to grind here. The changes I propose would probably halve my income.