When the outgoing president of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), Sir Ian Gilmore, calls for an end to the state’s prohibition of drug use, acknowledging that the policy has failed abysmally, you can guess what the official reaction will be.
So no prizes for those who thought that a spokesperson for the Home Office would say: "Drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis are extremely harmful and can cause misery to communities across the country. The government does not believe that decriminalisation is the right approach.” That’s been the line for 40 years since doctors were banned from prescribing heroin to patients under laws passed by the Labour government of 1966-70.
Farewell emails are more often than not best forgotten. But Sir Ian’s missive to the 25,000 members of the august RCP certainly wasn’t. He told them: “I personally back the chairman of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, when he calls for drug laws to be reconsidered with a view to decriminalising illicit drugs use. This could drastically reduce crime and improve health."
He endorsed a recent article in the British Medical Journal by Stephen Rolles, from the think tank Transform Drug Policy Foundation. This demonstrated in a comprehensive and conclusive way that the policy of prohibition had harmed public health, encouraged organised crime and fuelled corruption. It’s a conclusion reached by many official reports, including one by the Police Foundation as long ago as 1999.
And as last night’s Channel 4’s brilliant, eye-opening documentary, Birth of a narco-state, by Angus Macqueen, revealed, prohibition carried into foreign policy by the US and Britain has had a disastrous effect on Afghanistan. Attempts to prevent poor farmers growing poppies has helped create a state dominated by the drugs mafia at the very highest levels. Naturally, the Taleban also uses heroin smuggling to fund its cause. As a result, half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is from the drugs trade and bribery of state officials. About 90% of heroin on Britain’s streets is Afghan, smuggled into the country through Iran and Turkey.
Globalisation has 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. 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. As a 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.”
The sharp rise in the use of drugs in society is undoubtedly connected to increased levels of alienation produced by the 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, insoluble as far as capitalism is concerned.
In his BMJ article, Rolles calls for regulation in place of prohibition and says it would be far cheaper than the ever increasing resources currently directed into efforts to control supply. But a huge state apparatus has grown up around the “war on drugs”, both domestic and military. Its perpetuation serves to sustain a draconian control over sections of society, especially young people, to the point where it has become self-justifying. Getting off the drugs merry-go-round and abandoning prohibition, will require a real dose of democracy that takes us beyond the present state of affairs.
AWTW communications editor