Another week, another government “10-year strategy” aimed at grabbing the tabloid headlines with get-tough policies that might even pull in a few votes. Sounds cynical? It’s not when you examine the facts. The latest “war on drugs” strategy is much like the last one, which even had a “Drugs Czar” in charge for a time.
While the new “strategy” makes a few worthy nods in the direction of education and support for families, its main emphasis is – you may have guessed by now – on punishment. Drug users who miss rehab treatment face having their state benefits withdrawn, which would leave them penniless and on the streets.
Another gem is the proposal to seize assets from alleged drug dealers – after an arrest but before any charge, let alone conviction. That’s another blow against the rule of law and the principle that you remain innocent until proven guilty. Then there are the targets plucked out of the air but with enforcement in mind. By 2009, says the paper, the police are required to issue an additional 2,000 conditional cautions
The drugs agency Release was scathing about the proposal to remove income benefits for those who fail to engage in treatment, saying it simplifies addiction. “The strategy paper recognises that many of those affected by drug addiction come from the most vulnerable and poverty stricken segments of society. Yet, the removal of benefits would compound this position. To leave people without income for a prolonged period, newspaper reports suggested up to 26 weeks in a ‘three strike’ rule, would result in many having no option but to resort to crime. This clearly is a counter-productive approach.”
A rise in the use of drugs in society is undoubtedly connected to increased levels of alienation produced by our intense, consumer-oriented society. The market economy depends to a greater extent on low-wage, flexible labour and destroys more skilled jobs than it creates. Many working-class communities are deprived of job opportunities that are both sustainable and meaningful. These deep structural inequalities are, of course, totally ignored by New Labour’s plans.
Globalisation has also created an international, large-scale business in drugs, which operates like any other industry. The market is highly competitive, which ensures that prices remain low and within reach of most sections in society. There are an estimated 332,000 problem drug users in England and it estimated that heroin and cocaine use costs £15.4bn a year in crime and health costs. Between a third and a half of theft and burglary is estimated to be drug-related. The illegal drug market is estimated to be worth between £4bn and £6.6bn a year. Prices of heroin and cocaine have continued to fall, partly as a consequence of the UK-US invasion of Afghanistan, where production has soared. As a recent report by the Royal Society of Arts acknowledged: “There is no reason to think that the illegal drugs business and its accompanying market can simply be closed down. Certainly all efforts so far to close them down have been dismal and often expensive failures.”
A rational policy would start from these wider social issues and begin a process of decriminalising drug use to end the control of supply by international crime gangs. In Portugal, depenalising drugs has halved the total of drug deaths since 2001. Sending people to prison, stopping their benefits and driving users underground is totally counter-productive. It does, however, grab the headlines and is attractive to the right-wing readership of papers like the Daily Mail. And that’s what counts in Whitehall.
AWTW communications editor