Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Times: Get your cocaine from Superdrug

The opinion piece by Camilla Cavendish copied below appears in today's Times that usefully airs some strong arguments (if you agree or disagree you can add comments below, on the Times website - most are currently supportive). Transform also gets a name check*.
For a more detailed discussion on how legal regulation of drugs might work see here or here.

Get your cocaine from Superdrug

The celebrity glamorisation of drugs is irrelevant. There would be huge benefits from legalisation

The Times, March 6th, Camilla Cavendish

The UN officials who condemned Britain's celebrity culture for glamorising cocaine yesterday presumably haven't watched the footage of Amy Winehouse in sandals, with injection marks between her toes. If these teetotal bureaucrats think that the singer's fans will follow her on to crack, they are far more naive than the British public. For people under 40, drugs are ubiquitous. Most of my generation thinks of cocaine much as our parents thought of single malt. Kate Moss, if the rumours were true, was just joining in with the mainstream. Whereas Amy has clearly gone beyond - as the thousands of bets on seem to testify.

The most powerful role models are dealers, not celebrities. All over Britain, men in gold jewellery flaunt their wealth at school gates. Teachers tell me how hard it is to convince teenagers to get NVQs, when they can have a career with Drugs Inc and aspire to make £1,000 a day. Drugs Inc is one of the most profitable, successful businesses of all time. The UN values it at about $330 billion, almost as big as the defence industry. The criminals who run Drugs Inc shift staggering amounts of stock with no conventional advertising. They offer free samples to children and discounts for trading up to harder substances. They motivate their sales force with threats.

As a result, drugs are now the second-largest revenue earner for organised crime. The profit margins, according to the Downing Street Strategy Unit, are higher than those on luxury goods. Drugs Inc pays no tax. And with so much money at stake, its barons are vicious. Violence has soared as rival gangs battle for a share of the profits.

Two weeks ago Sunday Essiet became the fifth teenager to be murdered in London this year (and we're only two months in). The little Nigerian boy was “kicked like a football” in Plumstead, the victim of what residents claimed was a drug turf war between white and Somali groups. A few months earlier a 13-year-old girl had been knifed in her playground in mid-afternoon by rivals of her friend, an 18-year-old drug dealer. These are children. What better demonstration is there that the “war on drugs” has failed?

We won't end this violence by jailing celebrities or middle-class users. The only way to take back our streets is to wrest back control of the drugs from the criminals, by legalising and regulating their trade.

Imagine if you could buy coke from Boots. Or the aptly named Superdrug. That would drain the glamour from it more effectively than making a martyr of Kate Moss. I don't imagine her lovely features would adorn state-regulated packets of white powder, hanging next to the corn plasters. Yes, legalisation would make drugs cheaper, in order to undercut the dealers. Yes, usage might increase. But perhaps not much, because it is already widespread. A third of 16 to 24-year-olds routinely admit to having tried drugs, despite knowing that they are admitting to a crime.

The benefits of legalisation could be enormous. Overcrowded prisons would be relieved of people needing treatment rather than punishment (about 15 per cent of prisoners are in for possession or supply). Addicts would not be forced into associating with criminals. Children could be safe in Britain's playgrounds again.

Something similar happened in 1933, when America repealed Prohibition. The ban on alcohol had corrupted the police, increased the number of hard drinkers and created a whole new criminal class of bootleg suppliers. Britain's equivalent of Prohibition was the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. Up to that time we had treated addiction as an illness, heroin addicts got their fix on prescription, and there were only 5,000 problematic drug users, according to Transform, the drug policy group. Thirty years on there are 280,000. That is a direct result of Drugs Inc, which makes more money from pushing harder substances. Our laws have created crack, a concentrated form of cocaine, and skunk, a concentrated form of cannabis, both of which are devastating.

The prohibitionists fail to distinguish between recreational and problem users. The vast majority of people stick to recreational use of cocaine, Ecstasy and substances that even the Strategy Unit has classified as low-risk. There are tragic cases, of course, but they are often caused by impure supplies. Cocaine and Ecstasy can be cut with other substances. Glass has recently been found in cannabis - another nasty aspect of Drugs Inc that would disappear if the market went to Boots.

Annual deaths from drug use (about 2,000) are still minuscule compared with those related to alcohol and tobacco (about 160,000). These figures are not precise, because some people abuse all three. But it is arguable that the violence associated with the illegal drugs trade does more harm than the drugs themselves.

The irony is that it is the UN and its drug conventions that are the biggest barrier to progress. Its ideological war on drugs makes it almost impossible for countries to be pragmatic. It has demanded that Portugal, which decriminalised possession, should recant. Yet Portugal has accepted the reality that in GDP terms, it is dwarfed by Drugs Inc. As a result, it has seen crime fall.

The only way to make our streets safe is to wipe Drugs Inc off the map. The only way to do that is to legalise the trade. That would also redraw the map, because drug lords from Colombia to Afghanistan would no longer find the trade so lucrative. The UN's blindness to this is unforgivable: even worse than its failure to understand that Amy Winehouse, despite her beautiful voice, is the perfect health warning.


*Just to be pedantic, the stat quoted as from us can be a bit misleading. As outlined in the TDPF website intro page: "In 1970 there were estimated to be between 5,000 and 15,000 problematic drug users in the UK. There are now between 280,000 and 500,000". Obviously these things are difficult to measure and different sampling techniques and misuse criteria throw up different results. It should also specify we are talking about problematic users of illegal drugs. The stats quoted by Transform (also quoted in our 'Options for Control' publication, p.9) are based on various estimates and papers which review the different methodologies: (including Frischer M, et al ‘A comparison of different methods for estimating the prevalence of problematic drug misuse in Great Britain.’ Addiction. 2001 Oct;96(10):1465-76.). The Home Office has used the 280,000 figure - probably a conservative figure for 2008. The 5000 figure for 1970 refers to the number of registered addicts although this is thought to be in the region of one third of the total population - hence the 5-15k range, although this only apples to heroin use. It's an unfortunately imprecise science, complicated by the arrival of new patterns of problematic use, notably crack, superimposed on the earlier heroin using numbers. But the point remains the same - use has increased dramatically, by over 1000% since 1971 however you measure it. And thats not a great result for a policy intended to reduce and ultimately eliminate use.


Anonymous said...

I've read and learned all I need to see whats going on. Its blindingly obvious. Its eternally damaging, ruining the lives of millions, and wasting massive resources of so many countries. I can now see it, and clearly so many others can, even the home office's own figures and advisors can. Why does nothing change? :( Will it ever? :(

nemo said...

The above commenter asks a very good question: with the failure of drug prohibition so evident, why do most national governments continue to engage in it?

A partial answer:

The US has been the biggest impediment to the development of rational international drug control policy. This pattern of interference began when it first attempted to 'make over' the world in its' Puritanical image regarding the subject in Shanghai in 1909.

Ever since then, its' stridency has been matched by its' abject failures, as witnessed by the (embarrassingly) ever-rising tonnage of contraband seized, while prices hardly wobble and purity increases.

But still it presses forward monomaniacally, despite all the evidence of that failure. And it uses the UN Single Convention Treaty (which the INCB is the direct bureaucratic progeny of) to enforce that twisted view of morality upon a world become increasingly justifiably skeptical of it.

If there is to ever be any true progress with regards to drug policies, it will require nations presently signatories to the UN Single Convention Treaty to give their 6 months notice of intent to exit the Treaty, and do so. The only nations that would remain within it would be Uncle Sam's sycophantic satellites.

The world's nations face a choice: continue with increasingly environmentally and socially destructive polices due to a superpower's misplaced sense of moral superiority, or strike out on their own, and develop policies more suitable to their societal norms. And since Uncle Sam is pre-occupied by being up to his hips in bloody Iraqi quicksand, now would be a good time...

Anonymous said...

Drugs Inc and the Govt. both want the same thing, prohibition.

the government want it because they mistakenly believe that they can rid society of drugs.
DI know they cant and revel in every new posture from the govt because it ensures their survival.

so much evidence is there that regulation of this black economy is the solution that it makes me wonder if these unlikely bedfellows are really playing footsie under the covers.

(not so sure about this bit "skunk, a concentrated form of cannabis, both of which are devastating" ........but then again this spliff is pretty devastating)