SOCA, the new Serious Organised Crime Agency, launched by Tony Blair with some considerable fanfare in April last year seems to be running into problems even before it's first year is up. At the launch The prime minister told us that from now on life would be "hell" for "criminal Mr Bigs", and the previous Home Secretary announced that he was “sending the organised criminal underworld a clear message: be afraid". (Telegraph comment piece)
But two reports on Channel Four News last week suggested that any honeymoon period is well and truly over, and that Mr Big may not be quite as afraid as was hoped. So what's it all about and why have things apparently gone pear shaped so quickly? The news reports, which included interviews with disgruntled SOCA staff and various leaked emails, suggested bureaucracy and management issues, low morale and 'loopholes' that meant large numbers of drug seizures were not being followed up, attracting the ire of Police Federation amongst others.
But the problem with SOCA (I am only talking about the drugs side of their work here) is not primarily and internal one of incompetence or organisational strategy. The real problem is because of the terrible truth: the better SOCA do their job, the worse things will get. Supply side drug controls do not and cannot prevent drugs from reaching markets where sufficient demand exists. The best they can achieve is to further inflate drug prices, driving low income problematic users into ever larger volumes of offending to support their habits and attracting ever more violent criminals to control the profits offered up by prohbition. As we shall see, this is no secret to ministers.
SOCA was established last April following a merger of the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and sections of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Immigration Service. The new entity has a £400+ million a year budget, and organised crime involvement with the drugs is the most significant focus of their work. According the SOCA website:
Trafficking in heroin and cocaine, particularly crack cocaine, poses the greatest single threat to the UK in terms of the scale of serious organised criminal involvement, the illegal proceeds secured and the overall harm caused.
Home Office estimates put the harm caused by Class A drugs at around £13bn a year. This largely arises from the profits from sales, the crimes addicts commit to fund their habit, and the damage caused to family life and communities, as well as from costs to addicts' health.
As a brief aside, the above isn't a summary of the information of the SOCA's drug related activities on their website – that's all of it.
Anyway, if the organisation seems to be running into trouble this certainly isn't the fault of its core staff – many of whom, according to the Times, are apparently now trying to leave because of the organisational malaise and a desire to do some real hands on police work. I have met SOCA staff at various conferences and seminars and their professionalism and commitment to tackling organised crime isn't in question.
No, if there is a problem it is primarily the politics behind the organisation, that casts a shadow over everything it does. The backdrop to the establishment of SOCA is a 10 year drug strategy that, as it approaches its end, has failed in quite spectacular style to achieve its targets on reducing Class A drug supply and use (remember that 50% reduction in class A drug use/availability by 2008?). This failure is combined with a political climate of macho law and order posturing and one-up-manship between the major political parties, characterised by tough talking rhetoric that is heavily dictated by a tabloid agenda.
Drug policy under this Government (and to be fair, previous ones aswell) has been dominated by politics, remaining, for the most part, resolutely un-bothered by rational evidence based policy making. As drug supply, drug use, drug crime, and overall drug harm have continued to rise, the Government, rather than consider a change of approach or progressive policy alternatives, has defaulted to tough talking spin and bluster:
'Tough' new targets are announced as the old ones are missed and quietly retired, usually made as part of an updated strategy, from a newly re-named Drug Strategy Unit/Directorate/Wotsit, after a relocation to a new ministry, or by a tough new 'bruiser' Home Secretary – because obviously that's going to make a massive difference.
'Tough' new legislation is passed, like 2005's ill-thought out Drugs Act, which no-one in the drugs field wanted or asked for (the only welcome clause being the repeal of reforms to section 8 of the MDA, from the Government's previous ill thought out get-tough (sp)initiative). Much of it – like clause 2 of the Drugs Act – is never likely to be commenced because it is frankly a load of rubbish. I use the term advisedly as the biggest Drugs Act nerd on the planet outside of the poor unfortunates at the Home Office who had to draft it.
'Tough' announcements that grab a few headlines but never actually come to fruition because they are impractical, unethical, or occasionally illegal. Consider for example random drug testing in schools (announced in a Tony Blair exclusive interview in the News of the World), or the equally idiotic drugs sniffer dogs in schools, both going the same way (nowhere) as mandatory minimums, three strikes you're out, and all that other disastrous US-style 'war on drugs' nonsense.
'Tough' new appointments are made – The Drug Czar, a tough cop who looks a bit like Jack Palance, modelled on his ass-kickin' US counterpart, who is then unceremoniously dumped a couple of years later - a straw man for a doomed enforcement-led drug strategy he had no hope of salvaging.
And on and on it goes. There's a pattern here. Drug policy has been all about the big announcements, the new stuff – the process. Its all about the future, about turning the corner, about the upcoming breakthrough, about being tough. Its never about the outcomes.
For the simple reason – obvious to anyone not in a sensory deprivation tank for the past decade - that the outcomes are all dreadful.
Worse than dreadful – they are the opposite of what they were supposed to be. Class A drug use, (in particular the problematic kind that we should genuinely be concerned about), has gone up since 1997. A lot – including the crack 'epidemic' that all that toughness manifestly failed to prevent. Drugs are cheaper and more available than they have ever been. By a considerable margin. Attempts to control drug supply are a joke, and a pretty poor return on the £20 billion or so that has been hosed into drug policy enforcement over the past decade. And let us not forget that of the £13 billion a year of drug related harm that SOCA mentions on its otherwise totally un-infomative website, 88% of which is crime costs, and 95% of that being crime committed by addicts to support their habits. ie created by enforcement. ie costs of prohibition.
So come 2002 and Tony Blair is looking down the barrel of a drug policy disaster, a ten year strategy dramatically not doing what is was supposed to, and various groups including the Police Foundation and the Home Affairs Select Committee pointing out this fact very eloquently and publicly. At this point he called upon the top boys from his personal policy think tank – the Number Ten Strategy Unit – and they produced a devastating 114 page analysis of UK drug policy that shows with crystal clarity that supply side enforcement cannot ever work and actually creates huge collateral damage in the form of that £13billion or so a year in crime costs (they actually put it at £16 billion).
The No 10 report (presented to ministers and then supressed until FOI pressure and leaks brought it into the public domain) notes that:
“UK importers and suppliers make enough profit to absorb the modest cost of drug seizures” (p.82)
“The long term decline in the real price of drugs, against a backdrop of rising consumption, indicates that an ample supply of heroin and cocaine has been reaching the UK market”(p.80)
“Despite seizures, real prices for heroin and cocaine in the UK have halved over the last ten years”(p.91)
“Over the past 10-15 years, despite interventions at every point in the supply chain, cocaine and heroin consumption has been rising, prices falling and drugs have continued to reach users. Government interventions against the drug business are a cost of business, rather than a substantive threat to the industry's viability.” (p.94)
The report goes on to demonstrate how this crime will always be created by the underlying economics of the completely deregulated illegal drug market. When increasing numbers of users have to pay street prices grossly inflated by prohibition, the exploding levels of crime described in the report are inevitable:
“The high profitability of the drugs business is derived from a premium for taking on risk, as well as from the willingness of drug users to pay high prices” (p.66)
“profit margins for traffickers can be even higher than those of luxury goods companies” – (cites Gucci as an example) (p.69)
The report then shows that even if supply side interventions (exactly what SOCA are now involved in) were more successful, the result would be increased prices that could force addicts to commit more crime to support their habits.
“There is no evidence to suggest that law enforcement can create such droughts” (p.102)
[but even if they could…..]
“price increases may even increase overall harm, as determined users commit more crime to fund their habit and more than offset the reduction in crime from lapsed users”(p.99)
John Birt, 'blue skies' thinker and drug policy non-expert, then took that analysis and, in phase two of the Strategy Unit report, tried to come up with some sensible policy responses. Ignoring the analysis that enforcement was counter-productive and creating many of the very problems it was intended to eliminate (presumably because to not ignore it took policy in a direction he found politically unpalatable), he instead devised a repressive programme for shovelling ever greater numbers of drug using offenders into enforced abstinence-based 'treatment' as a way of reducing drug related crime (which formed the basis of the non-sensible Drugs Act 2005).
But no one really thought this was going to be the magic bullet, not even Birt, and besides, treatment isn't much of political crowd pleaser. And so it seemed the stage was set for some more tough new initiatives – yet more process announcements that would delay the reckoning a bit longer. This time though they needed something really big and seriously tough: we obviously needed our very own FBI. And that was what we got, £400million a year's worth, complete with its own futuristic new logo, featuring a big scary cat with mean looking claws striding the globe.
So whether SOCA is functioning better or worse than the various agencies it replaces isn't really the point (that really is just a process consideration). If anything the worse they perform the better. But even if SOCA was running like a well oiled military machine, arresting baddies like there was no tommorow (and the 'Mr Bigs' thought the daft thundercats logo was really intimidating), it still wouldn't save them from inevitable failure because however you dress it up, supply enforcement doesn't work, it just makes things worse. Drug seizures, however dramatic, don't stop drugs reaching their markets and arresting violent drug dealing hoodlums and smashing drug crime syndicates just creates a vacancy for the next generation of gangsters, all to keen to make a killing from prohibition. SOCA is an organisation whose drugs brief is set up to fail, and that must be pretty demoralising.