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This is an article first published on the online political opinion publication Errant Magazine, of which I am editor. It is an analysis of the move in policy towards tolerance and decriminalisation of narcotics over the use of custodial sentences.

i & ii Quotes appear as cited in BBC News article: ‘Call for ‘smarter’ drugs policy’
iii Figures appear as cited in TIME article: ‘Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalisation Work?’


Author not cited, 2009. Focus: ‘Call for ‘smarter’ drugs policy’. BBC News, [internet] 30 July. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2009].

Szalavitz, Maia, 2009. Focus: ‘Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalisation Work?’. TIME, [internet] 26 April. Available at:,8599,1893946,00.html [Accessed 8 August 2009]

Kushlick, Danny, 2008. Focus: ‘Drug prohibition – an untenable hypocrisy’. Guardian, [internet] 13 August. Available at: [Accessed 30 July 2009]

Transform Drug Policy Foundation, Strategy Unit Drugs report summary, ‘No 10 Strategy Unit Drugs Project: Phase 1 Report: “Understanding the Issues”’, 2003. Available at: [Accessed 30 July 2009]

The Wire: The Complete Third Season. 2006 [DVD] United States: HBO Home Video.

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As life imitates art, Josh Russell says it’s about time we called a ceasefire on the ‘War on Drugs’

It’s late at night. Drug users roam the streets. Dealers push their products; a persistent call and response of street names yelled like the banter of twisted market criers. Children run around at waist height, trying to scavenge whatever they can. A fight breaks out, uninterrupted by onlookers. Wasted addicts are visible in every doorway; babies cry, their mother’s oblivious. The area is poorly managed; a lack of social support and community policing has reduced these few blocks to a private hell. It is one of the city’s new decriminalised zones.

Whilst this is perhaps the image that comes to mind for some when we talk of decriminalisation, more avid TV fans may recognise it as a scene from the third season of HBO’s excellent series The Wire. In the programme, tired by the losing struggle against drug dealers in his district, a Major Howard Colvin decides to act under his own initiative, putting into place zones where dealing will be tolerated. His officers encourage pushers to move away from residential corners into uninhabited safe zones that are dubbed locally as ‘Hamsterdam’, allowing the district police to focus on the violence associated with the drugs trade.

In a bizarre twist of fate, the UK Drug Policy Commission has announced in the last week that ‘smarter’ tactics are needed to reduce the harm that the drugs trade has on our society, tactics that bear a striking resemblance to David Simon’s critically acclaimed series.i It seems to be another case of life imitating art but the question that must be asked is can the reality be sweeter than the fiction?

It is undeniable that over the years the current policy on drugs has received more than its fair share of criticism. Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, has described its impact on the problem as “negligible”, remarking that policy needs to focus “on what works to reduce the damage done by drug abuse”. Former leader of the Conservative Party, Ian Duncan Smith, has referred to current drugs policy as “a mess”.ii The press criticism has been, if anything, more severe. Last year, in his damning Guardian article on prohibition, Danny Kushlick made reference to former head of the UK Anti-Drug Co-ordination Unit Julian Critchley’s commentary on current policy, saying that “criminalisation [is] causing more harm than the drugs themselves” and went on to describe the current situation as “one of the great social policy disasters of the last 100 years”. Given the fact that both their major rivals and the press are staunch critics, you’d think you would be fairly safe in assuming that at least the Labour Party must have solid evidence of its merits to adhere so staunchly their current policies.

And yet you would be mistaken. In 2003 a report was commissioned by the Government on our present tactics for combating the prevalence of drugs in the UK. Oft cited as a major source for opponents of the policy, the ‘No 10 Strategy Unit Drugs Project: Phase 1 Report: Understanding the Issues’ states in brief that “our commitment to a global ‘drug war’ that cannot be won is costing the UK billions in wasted expenditure and crime costs”. The report, a study of the economic and social cost of international and domestic drug policy, has some truly disturbing findings.

Its initial statements are that prohibition:

has failed to prevent or reduce the production of drugs
has failed to prevent or reduce the trafficking / availability of drugs
has failed to reduce levels of problematic drug use
The report asserts that attempts to reduce drug trafficking are failing as “UK importers and suppliers make enough profit to absorb the modest cost of drug seizures” and this can be evinced by the fact that “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”.

However, by far and away the worst implication of the report is that current tactics are actually contributing to raising levels of drug-related crime, rather than lowering them. Supply side busts are only succeeding in reducing the availability of drugs, “inflat[ing] prices of heroin and cocaine, leading some dependent users to commit large volumes of acquisitive crime” to feed their habits. Statistics show that a vast proportion of certain types of crime are drug related, including “85% of shoplifting, 70-80% of burglaries, 54% of robberies” and it is clear that driving up prices artificially will do very little to combat this long term. In fact this factor may go a long way towards cancelling out any positive effects that may be achieved by supply side intervention as “determined users commit more crime to fund their habit and more than offset the reduction in crime from lapsed users.” Rather worryingly, the summary to the report states that it can only be assumed that the reason it was not originally released publicly was because “its findings undermined the tenets of global drug prohibition.”

There are also other problems with an extended campaign against suppliers. Whilst space can be cleared in the market, it is unrealistic to expect it to stay vacant for any real period of time because as long as a demand exists there will always be people willing to supply for that demand. In addition, it has been suggested that the arrest of high level dealers and gang members can often cause a vacuum at the top and the resultant power struggles can cause a massive spike in the levels of violence.

Worst of all, current policy is also punishing addicts for their addiction, costing millions of pounds in taxes and failing to approach an actual solution to their problem. Drug addiction is a sickness and should not be punishable with lengthy jail sentences, especially as the ready availability of narcotics in prisons does not cut the addict off from a supply. Equally, court-mandated coerced treatment often has a high rate of failure because a patient forced into treatment may often lack the willpower and desire to quit long term.

So how does the UK Drug Policy Commission intend to go about rectifying the flaws in the current system? The suggested changes to policy centre around reducing the most harmful drug activity, moving away from focusing largely on seizures and arrests and instead beginning to work together with local communities to combat crime and anti-social behaviour. More dramatic perhaps, it has been suggested that dealing that is kept away from residential zones and relocated to areas such as industrial estates is likely to be tolerated to allow police to tackle issues such as sexual exploitation, gun crime and the involvement of children in the drugs trade. The policy differs from its predecessor in one key respect; rather than attempting to reduce the amount of drug dealing taking place, it instead aims to lessen the impact it has on the community.

Whilst it seems a controversial idea, there have been some precedents for such a massive change in tack in narcotics policy. In 2001, Portugal became the first country in the EU to abolish criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, from ‘softer’ drugs such as Marijuana to hard drugs like Heroin and Methamphetamine. Instead of imposing harsh sentences on people caught in possession small amounts of drugs, their policy now means that those found guilty are referred to a panel for treatment options, which they may turn down without fear of prosecution or further punishment.

Despite the worry that this could actually lead to an increase in the personal consumption of drugs, the opposite is in fact true and statistics show that Heroin use in 16-to-18-year-olds has fallen from 2.5% to 1.8%. Since the introduction of this policy, deaths from hard drug use have been halved; new HIV infections in users have fallen by 17% and the number of people taking an anti-addictive drug treatment such as methadone more than doubled.iii These impressive figures show the awesome potential of the proposed changes to our own policy and draw attention to perhaps the most significant connotation of the review.

Major Colvin’s Hamsterdam experiment in The Wire admittedly has a rather shaky start but where the model starts to get interesting is where community outreach is concerned. Disturbed by the “great village of pain” that he has witnessed the decriminalised zones, a local Deacon pleads with the Major, asking him to implement social reforms such as needle exchanges, HIV testing, drug rehabilitation programmes and free contraception, something that is much more viable now that the addicts are all in one place. Here the programme hits upon something incredibly important; toleration of drug use means that users are no longer being driven underground by the fear of criminal punishment. Whilst “it’s not pretty”, the fact that drug users are no longer forced to hide their addiction away means that direct hand-to-mouth treatment can suddenly reach a far greater number of people.

This is where the real strength of a change in policy lies. When there is not such a great need for the secrecy and isolation of the drug-taking community, direct support and tailored health schemes can be provided where needed most. In addition, it also means the extent of the problem can be accurately monitored rather than masking the numbers affected by forcing beneath the surface of our society. Perhaps this is how the Portuguese policy has found such success; rather than prosecuting addicts, they are now reaching out and offering treatment to those affected, treating the roots of the problem rather than punishing those who do fall under the influence of narcotics.

These ideas are difficult to swallow. Nobody wants to encourage a ‘fair game’ attitude to drugs. But we are looking at a real world problem and it is one that requires a real world solution; reducing the harm drugs cause to our society is a far more achievable aim than eradicating a nigh on inexhaustible supply of narcotics. Part of the problem with the ‘War on Drugs’ is that it is treated as just that; an endless battle with high casualties on both sides.

It is becoming clear that brute force is failing to resolve anything. Perhaps we need to accept that when sheer force fails it is high time we gave diplomacy a try.


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