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Is legalising drugs the only answer?
date: 30-April-2006
editorial comment editorial comment
A bit of rare thinking... Maybe it's not the only answer, but it's a better one than prohibition....

Some top police officers are now backing the idea that hard drugs should be decriminalised. Is this a brave but foolhardy idea, asks Tim Luckhurst

When the Ayrshire drugs baron John Gorman was jailed for 12 years last week and nine of his associates received prison sentences totalling 41 years, staff at the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency (SDEA) were jubilant. Since large-scale heroin trafficking began in the late 1980s, the impact has been devastating. One study puts the costs of drug addiction at more than £2 billion per year. The toll in human misery includes countless acts of street prostitution and children who witness food money injected into mummy’s veins. For the law-abiding, addiction manifests itself as mugging, house-breaking and car crime.
Graeme Pearson of the SDEA may have been guilty of hyperbole when he said, “There isn’t an Ayrshire town or village that escaped the suffering, misery and tragedy inflicted as a result of activities of this group,” but if so it was understandable.

Drug enforcement rarely catches the men police call “Mr Big.” Jails contain hundreds of distraught African “mules”, whose offence was to imagine they might escape grinding poverty by walking through Heathrow airport with drugs in their stomach. The criminal bosses who bully them are rarely caught.

A senior member of a Scottish police drug squad once described to me “our typical Big Man”. He lives in an expensive home in one of the affluent suburbs of a Scottish city. There are matching “his and hers” Mercedes cars on the drive. His children attend private schools and shop in designer stores where they pay in cash.

The drug baron’s affluence is attributed to front companies involved in multiple cash transactions — hire-cars are common. His narcotics are never stored at home. They might be locked in the boot of an apparently abandoned car. Ideally the drugs are on the streets, being peddled to the desperate by addicts who get their own hits by generating profits for the boss.

Street dealers get caught. But they say little about their source of supply. Mr Big has friends on both sides of the prison wall. He can afford to regard his couriers and dealers as dispensable assets. There are thousands more begging to be recruited. This, and the copious supplies of heroin now flowing from Afghanistan’s post-Taliban explosion in opium-growing, makes the imprisonment of Gorman and his cronies a temporary victory.

Faced with this knowledge, some frontline officers attending last week’s national conference of the Scottish Police Federation demanded the legalisation of hard drugs. They proposed a licensing scheme that would make drugs available to addicts under controlled circumstances. Inspector Jim Duffy of Strathclyde Police said: “We are not winning this war or anywhere close to it. The status quo is not an option. If the current rules of engagement do not change we are destined to continue to fail.”

Until recently the legalisation of hard drugs was associated almost exclusively with radical libertarianism. It is a measure of just how deep-seated Scotland’s drug problem has become that it is now being heard from police officers.

The logic is superficially compelling. Supporters argue that criminalising addictive substances has had the same effect as America’s experiment with prohibition of alcohol. Instead of limiting consumption it has delivered the trade into the hands of criminals. They become rich by meeting a demand that can never be entirely eradicated and which is in their interests to expand. Legalisation, say supporters, would get rid of the gangs and ensure the purity of drugs.

Converts to the cause tend to become evangelical, often moving on to assert that it would eradicate criminality all the way back to the opium fields and coca plantations.

The first minister does not agree. “I think it would be a disaster,” said McConnell. “I’m totally against it and I’m shocked that the Police Federation or any members of it would want to support this. I think the worst possible signal we could give to families across Scotland, to addicts in Scotland and to dealers beyond Scotland is that we are prepared to encourage more sales of drugs by legalising them.”

That was a knee-jerk reaction. But McConnell is right that they can usually rely on support from the relatives of addicts. Families struggling to save children from addiction often dismiss legalisation as a middle-class whim.

One Glasgow mother whose son served a sentence for drug-related crimes told me: “I was glad to see him in jail. It was harder for him to get drugs. But as soon as he came out we had a battle to stop him going straight back to them.” She described legalisation as “an excuse to waste the rest of his life.”

It is perhaps wishful thinking to assume gang members who make fortunes supplying drugs would be destroyed by legalisation. Certainly, the Scottish police are not speaking with one voice on the issue. Detective Sergeant Kenny Simpson, of Strathclyde force, says: “The public will look at this and ask themselves if the police have lost the plot altogether. If it’s any reassurance, my message to the public is no, we haven’t lost the plot — at least most of us haven’t”.

It seems unlikely that ruthless killers who exploit the production end of the supply chain will not be deterred by changes to local laws. Their capacity to disrupt legalisation cannot be lightly dismissed. It becomes hard to envisage how the state could secure supplies of drugs to state-registered outlets without paying terrorists to deliver them.

The criminal gangs could choose to undercut the state price. Or they could respond by selling more potent versions of the drugs addicts crave. History suggests gangs tend to diversify. People-smuggling is already taking a grim toll among young women from eastern Europe. Legalising drugs would put rocket boosters under that repulsive trade in slave prostitutes.

Legalisation is not the catch-all solution proponents imagine, but there remains a possibility that it might dent the drugs trade more than endless efforts to catch other Mr Bigs who run operations more sophisticated than Gorman’s. It is a debate worth having, although proponents of legalisation might perhaps care to note that Dutch politicians who pioneered some of the most liberal drugs laws in Europe are now seeking to tighten them after discovering that liberalisation was leading to increased drug usage.

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