I notice the politically-thorny issue of admitting that our current policy towards drug prohibition is failing has quietly raised its head and in some surprising quarters at that. This from the CityMetric website:-
On Sunday, home secretary Amber Rudd argued that the “biggest driver” of rising violent crime was the illegal drugs market. The growth of so-called county lines gangs, often recruiting young children to transport drugs around the country, is fuelling our £5.3bn black market in cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, and more.
The violence of crimes from drug gangs is spreading outwards from our cities, with an estimated 4,000 teenagers in London alone caught up in smuggling operations. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, the share of homicides where either victim or suspect was a drug user or dealer increased from 50 per cent to 57 per cent. Competition among drug dealers has reached such a high level that some are offering loyalty cards for repeat customers.
But as politicians across the ideological spectrum discuss Band-Aid measures like tougher restrictions on buying acid and banning home deliveries of knives, the elephant in the room is our failed policy of drug prohibition.
In its recently-released Serious Violence Strategy, the Home Office inadvertently diagnoses many problems of prohibition. It correctly highlights that “grievances in illicit drug markets cannot be settled through legal channels, so participants may settle them violently. This can lead to escalation as dealers seek to portray themselves as excessively violent.”
But this is entirely avoidable: the Home Office goes on to say that “violence can be used as a way of maintaining and increasing profits within drugs markets”. In other words, the escalation happens because drugs are illegal and unregulated.
Gangs are sophisticated businesses, with strong incentives to keep their clients involved and those in their control under their thumb. Gangs in our largest cities run weapons and trafficking operations across the country. They use income from the drugs trade to finance their lifestyles, and the need to protect this feeds the firearms they trade – as seen in Liverpool where the Anfield gang jailed last year were found to be running the country’s second largest combined gun, drug and people trafficking operation with activity in rural Cheshire, Lancashire and even down to the South Coast.
The violence these gangs create is entirely the result of forcing such markets underground. Legal, regulated alcohol companies solve their disputes through competition in the marketplace, and the courts if necessary. Illegal, unregulated drug gangs often solve their disputes by the less formal methods of murdering and robbing each other.
And when police bust one gang, the resulting power vacuum can lead to heightened violence as those remaining vie for dominance. Economic evidence suggests that the introduction of medical marijuana laws (MMLs) in the USA led to a decrease in violent crime in states that border Mexico, and more wide-reaching liberalisation will have even greater effects.
But it’s not just turf wars between rival gangs that disappear under legalisation. Problem drug users are free to seek treatment without fear of arrest; campaigners are currently calling for drug consumption rooms in London, Glasgow, and elsewhere. They are also less likely to fund their habit through theft. Washington State’s decision to legalise cannabis in November 2012 caused a reduction in thefts of between 13 per cent and 22 per cent.
Property crime is likely to plummet if other drugs were legalised and regulated according to relative harm levels: official figures show that nearly half of shoplifting, thefts, robberies and burglaries are committed by regular heroin and crack cocaine users.
Recreational users are also less likely to face violent crime. You don’t tend to get robbed at knifepoint purchasing alcohol in an off-licence, but buying cannabis in a dark alley is a different matter. Parents would no longer have to worry about the possibility that their teenage children are getting into cars with complete strangers in order to buy drugs, and any dealers who survive their market being swept away from them would face a police force with far greater resources to put them behind bars.
Last week, David Lammy MP told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that, “The police and our country has lost control of [the] drugs market.” He’s right – but more prohibition and more police on the beat won’t solve the problem of rising violent crime. The definition of insanity is continually doing the same thing and expecting different results.
But we needn’t. The state is imposing the spillover cost of violence onto estates in our cities and onto the young people caught up in gang warfare. It has the ability to take this power away from gangs and become a world leader in harm reduction. The only way to gain control of the drugs market is to make it legal and regulated.
Daniel Pryor is head of programmes at the Adam Smith Institute.
This from the Conservative Home website seems to indicate that some brave souls in at least one political party feel there could be votes in the issue. Equally, some might feel the eager optimism could be somewhat simplistic and naive:-
The papers might have been full over recent days of Amber Rudd’s inability to read a report from her own department about the impact of police cuts – but they missed the bigger picture. The Home Secretary is right to highlight the impact of drug gangs on our cities and young people, and on the rise of violent crime in the past twelve months – but she’s missed the obvious solution.
Time and time again I come across policy stories like this. Whether it’s on housing, where people complain of a housing crisis and the Tories say they’ll build more but ignore that it’s the Government’s constriction of supply that leads to higher rents and less disposable income. Or on encouraging more women to remain in employment after childbirth without looking at the costs of childcare or how government can best reduce it. All too often the debate doesn’t look beyond the obvious and the answers are unimaginative. We end up failing to solve the underlying problems.
Under Thatcher the Conservatives stood for simple and sellable principles: “My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.”
Simple principles give you wiggle room when it comes to actual policy. But they also help set the direction of what it is you’re trying to achieve. And we have to remember, always, that politics is about achieving things. In this case, I suggest to the Conservative Party that it might want to go back to that mantra of Maggie’s, in particular the final point: “Support the police.”
It follows that the key question is how you support them. Do you funnel money in? Do you grant them sweeping new powers? Do you devolve power to local forces so that managers manage? Or something more imaginative?
The best thing that the Conservative Party can do now to support the police in tackling gang violence is to legalise drugs. I also think that doing so would be a profoundly Conservative move.
At the moment we have a prohibition on certain substances. In fact, a lot of substances. Everything from cannabis and cocaine, to snus and MDMA. We don’t have bans on various strengths, what they’re used for, or who is using them. We just blanket ban. But at the same time we recognise the idiocy of recreating this approach for things like alcohol, sugar, or nicotine (despite the continuous pressure from busybody campaign groups).
The Home Office’s Serious Violence Strategy explained many problems of prohibition. It showcased how “grievances in illicit drug markets cannot be settled through legal channels, so participants may settle them violently. This can lead to escalation as dealers seek to portray themselves as excessively violent.” In fact, gangs use “violence…as a way of maintaining and increasing profits within drugs markets.”
When you go to Tesco and buy a bottle of wine, or to the corner shop for cigarettes, you don’t expect to be mugged and the odds are that you won’t be. But suppose you’re buying a substance that the state prohibits. You end up putting yourself in dangerous situations; whether that’s getting into a dealer’s car or going down dark alleyways. The state is unwittingly encouraging this behaviour. All of us know that people buy these things, and saying that they shouldn’t isn’t good enough. It’s deeply unconservative to put youngsters at greater risk of harm.
And it is young people who are being harmed. Not just those using illegal drugs, but those who are groomed by criminal gangs. Estimates by the Home Office suggest there are some 4,000 teenagers in London alone caught up in smuggling operations. The spillover effects are stark, too. Between 2014/15 and 2016/17, murders and manslaughters where either the victim or suspect was a drug user or dealer increased from 50 per cent to 57 per cent. We needn’t be suffering this scourge of violence. In the USA, evidence suggests that legalisation of medical marijuana saw violent crime drop in states that border Mexico. Washington State’s decision to legalise cannabis in November 2012 caused a reduction in thefts of between 13 per cent and 22 per cent.
If, like Thatcher, you believe that Conservatives should support the police and that it’s our duty to look after ourselves, and then also to look after our neighbour, we have to do what works and what is right. In this case, that’s legalisation.
The Black Market in drugs is worth around £5.3 billion to gangs in the UK. Let’s starve them of their cash. We can give it to a legal and regulated industry. Importantly, it removes power from gangs dealing in other drugs; in the USA, states with cannabis legalisation saw a 14.5 per cent reduction in any opiate use, and 24.8 per cent fewer opioid overdose deaths in states with medical cannabis laws between 1999 and 2010. Meanwhile, more restrictive policies on opioids led to higher numbers seeking black-market alternatives. The best way for the police to tackle this is to have to implement laws that are most harm-reducing.
It’ll be worth it. Adam Smith Institute research estimated cannabis legalisation alone could be worth £7 billion to the UK economy and up to £1.05 billion in tax revenue. There’s good reason to think this is a low-ball figure. Estimates of revenue in Colorado and in Washington were $70 million and $162 million respectively, but by the third year revenue reached $193.6 million and $314.8 million.
Support in the UK for medicinal cannabis is at 78 per cent, and support for recreational cannabis legalisation has now been over 55 per cent for half a decade.
The party that grasps the nettle and frees up the market will reap the political dividend, just as the Liberals did in Canada. The Tories can cut crime, support the police and boost business. Frankly they should be more Conservative and end prohibition.