Now Drug Trade Hits the Poor
Independent, 15 April 1998

ART: Now Drug Trade Hits the Poor

THERE is more heroin on the streets of Britain than there ever has been. The authorities seized 1,747kg of this hard drug (with a value of more than 145m) last year - a tonne more than in 1996. The trade is, apparently, organised by Turkish gangs that have 'flooded' the market and reduced the price dramatically. Wraps of heroin can be bought, retail, for as little as 2. That is the obvious supply-push reason why use has increased, But what about demand-pull? Why do people use it in the first place - and can the law do anything to help them stop?

The film Trainspotting showed us that heroin users can be, sometimes at least, affable, charming even. But, unlike most of us, they are addicted to a rush described by one character in the movie as "superior to a thousand orgasms". When even sex can't compete we had all better watch out. "Heroin chic" is one of the modern faces of fashion. Its meretricious charms are all around us. Of course there have been epidemics of heroin use before. A previous generation of film-makers exploited the cliches of underground drug use in the late 1960s. "Chasing the dragon" caught up with us in the 1970s. But there was something self-limiting about those previous outbreaks. Then, like myxomatosis, this was a disease in one British species that could not be transmitted to others: it reached a natural limit and then declined until the next wave. In short, it was a hobby of the rich. Today heroin is cheap and attacks the deprived, those liable to have least incentive to "grow out" of the problem like college kids: it compounds social problems and feeds crime on run-down estates. It threatens larger sections of our people more virulently than ever before.

Keith Hallawell, the Government's drugs Tsar, says that 700 heroin addicts committed 70,000 crimes within three months to fund their habit. researchers have claimed that he average heroin addict has to steel goods worth more than $43,000 each year to fund a modest daily habit. We are all in favour of being tough on those convicted of such offences. But we need also to understand where the cause lies.

Yesterday in this newspaper Oliver James argued persuasively about why violent crime soared in the years after 1987. Violence is caused by being male, young and from a low-income family. So is drug abuse. In 1979, 20 per cent of boys were raised in low-income families. By 1981 this had risen to 33 per cent and has stayed there ever since. Some of Thatcher's children have grown up to be violent and some have grown up to be addicts.

These arguments hold for all hard drugs, and we see no case for relaxing the law, thereby admitting defeat; and a very god reason for the Government to tackle urban deprivation ever more passionately.

The same arguments do not apply to all soft drugs, particularly cannabis. It would be foolish to pretend that cannabis presents the same kind of threat to people as cocaine and heroin do. We find it very odd that cannabis is classed in the same way as heroin. It is silly for MPs - of all people - to abdicate their responsibilities and be frightened of joining in the debate about drugs. But it does not follow that the time has come to decriminalise cannabis.

Why not? Above all, because the evidence is not clear and decisive. If it is the case that its heavy and sustained use is, on balance, not harmful, then no reasonable person would do other than set the people free and concentrate on licensing and regulatory questions. However, that weight of evidence does not yet exist; we suspect that the evidence will accumulate in the other direction. Comparisons with legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, don't seem persuasive to us: alcohol saturates our culture n a way that cannabis and heroin do not. If tobacco was first discovered this week deep in some rainforest, and we quickly discovered how dangerous it is, would we allow it to be legally available? Is the wider availability of narcotics really a social good? And isn't the law, in frowning on cannabis without being fiercely implemented, more like a decent fudge than cynical hypocrisy?

These remarks may startle some readers who have watched and supported and marched with the campaign to decriminalise cannabis run by the Independent on Sunday. We admire its vigour and respect its integrity. We share is desire for a wider debate. For this newspaper, though, the onus rests with those who favour change and that case remains to be proved.

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