The Misuse of Drugs Act has divided society and branded half a generation 'criminal'. Now at last there is a chance to think again
by Simon Jenkins,
The Times August 27 1997

The Misuse of Drugs Act has divided society and branded half a generation 'criminal'. Now at last there is a chance to think again

Hooked on an unworkable law

I doubt if any law on the statute book has done less good and more harm than the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Over its bleak quarter century, a law supposedly protecting ourselves, our children and "society" from harmful products has done the opposite. Their consumption has soared. It has led more young people into prison and a life of crime than any other Act. Distribution of amphetamines, hallucinogens, cannabis, and cocaine and opium derivatives has risen sharply. Half the population under the age of 30 has used or is using illegal drugs.

Here, in other words, is a law that has failed. It is a dud law, an unenforceable law, a counterproductive law, an instance of how bad politicians are at what they claim is their chief job, passing legislation. Yet a dud law on food safety, or dangerous pets, or drunk driving, might be changed. The Misuse of Drugs Act seems impervious to amendment or repeal. It contains a repelling magnet.

To the Tories, the Act was as sacred as the Act of Union. On this subject, they were the irrational in flight from the undebatable. Many hoped that a new Labour Government would prove more open-minded. I would guess that half the present Cabinet privately agrees with Clare Short in wanting to drop some of the Act's "dead letters", such as on cannabis possession. I would even hazard Tony Blair's name on that list. Yet the new Home Office Ministers are as dyed in the wool as the old ones. I heard George Howarth's voice tremble on radio when asked to review the Act. No, he gasped. His colleague Alun Michael protested that even using the phrase royal commission was anathema. It might "send wrong signals" or "be misunderstood". The result is a startling divide in social policy, between an older generation which believes a social law is far too weak and a younger one which (by two-to-one, according to polls) believes the precise reverse. This is the polarisation that faces the committee set up this week by the Police Foundation under Viscountess Runciman. Clearly, what politicians are too frightened to discuss, others must discuss for them.

The polarisation is now extreme and growing wider. Few heroin users before the 1971 Act were criminals or social outcasts. Their drug was available on prescription. Heroin addiction is now said to be responsible for 20 per cent of all crime recorded by police. For the first time in history a drug supposedly outlawed to curb its use is addicting an ever-widening circle of young people. Meanwhile, magistrates are locking up otherwise law-abiding sellers of cannabis for seven years. Prisoners now have the highest drug consumption per apita of any occupational group in Britain. The Home Office is unable to stop its prisons becoming the hottest dope houses in the land. Yet it believes it can ban drug use in the outside world.

This is close to madness. On one side of the argument are those who believe that "one more push" under the Misuse of Drugs Act might work. They insist that the list of substances that already damage people's bodies is long enough. All drugs are hell. The only way the community can condemn that hell is through the criminal law. Traffickers should incur society's most savage punishment. Alcohol and tobacco are integrated into our social habits. Were they not, we would ban them oo, and in the case of tobacco we are in the process of doing just that.

These people see their case reinforced by ever more evidence of the enhanced narcotic effects of even "recreational" drugs. Modern chemicals are of unknown effect. Recent research on Ecstasy in America suggests that the damage it does to brain cells may shorten the brain's life. We are possibly producing a generation of young people prone to early senile dementia. By all means research, educate and practise "harm reduction", say the prohibitionists. But never legitimise.

Two Increasingly distinct groups oppose the prohibitionists, one ideological, the other pragmatic. The ideologues share with classical libertarians the view that the State should not interfere with individual liberty except to protect minors or maintain order. They claim it is absurd that adults smoking cannabis, students taking Ecstasy, or rock stars sniffing cocaine need to be protected from themselves by other adults who dislike these products and can deploy the criminal law against them. Such products are in the same ethical realm as alcohol and nicotine. Narcotics are as old as human society. Prohibition merely legitimises the prejudice of one group and intrudes on the personal freedom of another. In this spirit, the financier George Soros yesterday donated $15 million to fight America's draconian drugs laws.

< The pragmatists are down-to-earth. To them, prohibition simply does not work. It is like using cavalry against tanks. The trumpet blast is noble but the war has passed on. As the Chief Constable of Bedfordshire, Michael O'Byrne, said last week, either Government should hurl far more money at crushing drug istribution, or the police must be relieved of this burden. The present law can be enforced only at random, which means ineffectively and corruptly.

Every newspaper reader knows how prevalent the drugs distribution business now is in Britain and across the globe. City centres, housing estates, market towns, pubs and clubs are in thrall to this hugely profitable (because unregulated and untaxed) industry. It ranks with the oil industry for global turnover. It has far outstripped all other criminal activity and is believe to finance a quarter of the world's governments and as many of its police forces. The outlawing of narcotics banned by the West probably causes more violence and misery across the world than anything short of war itself.

When the Customs and Excise declared its "best ever" year for drug seizures, it merely announced the best year for drug trading. This is senseless market intervention. I doubt if the Government seizes even 1 per cent of what enters Britain each year. Like the US Navy, which spends $2 billion trying to "interdict" drug-running in the Caribbean, such operations have a marginal effect on street prices. Indeed, one of the most cogent (if cynical) arguments for maintaining prohibition is that the drugs trade channels money free of tax to communities that legitimate commerce is unlikely to reach from the poor of Colombia to the Afro-Caribbean distribution networks of South London.

Last week I saw drugs openly sold on the streets of Edinburgh during the festival. Tons of cannabis, Ecstasy and cocaine would have been traded at the Notting Hill Carnival, under the nose of the carousing leader of the Conservative Party. Nobody can visit council estates in Moss Side, Leeds or Newcastle, where drugs are now the cheapest pastime and most buoyant trade, and regard the Misuse of Drugs Act as operational. Police officers and social workers are the ultimate "redrafters" of bad laws. To them drugs are not as seen by middle-aged and suburban voters, an alien menace to be repelled by the criminal law. They are a fact of everyday life, dangerous because unregulated, cheap because untaxed, corrupting because distributed by unlicensed cartels.

This debate reaches deep into the cultural psyche. The most common and most widely debilitating drug on earth, alcohol, is something Britons believe they have learnt to "handle". Anyone who walks the streets at night, or visits a police cell or casualty ward, knows that this is untrue. Yet we call a bottle of whisky "safe" and a joint of marijuana a potential killer. We have succeeded, with public consent, to control alcohol's ability to turn car drivers into killers. Yet the drugs preferred by the young and many immigrant groups are greeted with an irrational horror.

None of this validates legalisation. It does plead for a review of the Act. The difficulty is that the present coalition of policemen, social and health workers, two thirds of voters under 25, and a myriad others who use, sell or tolerate illicit drugs does not constitute a majority. In a democracy, majorities must be obeyed, however closed their minds.

What is depressing about the present debate is that an industry with an astonishing power to penetrate every aspect of the social economy is still political anathema. Another committee is unlikely to change minds. My hope is that this one at least might start to open them.

The author is a member of the new committee of inquiry.

The Times

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