Monday, 16 April 2018

Politics and Drugs

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:-  

If ministers want to curb violent crime in our cities, they should liberalise our failing drug laws

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:- 

To reduce gang violence, support the police, and boost the economy, legalise drugs

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.

Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.


  1. Canada is in the process of legalising illicit drugs, and the Republic of Ireland, a country where possession of a condom makes you a sinner, is considering legalisation of cannabis and allowing Dutch style coffee shops.
    Andrew Boff the very right wing Conservative member of the London Assembly has caused a huge row by calling for the legalisation of drugs in response to Amber Rudds violent crime strategy.
    Does the legalisation and regulation of drugs make a society more tolerant? No it dosen't. It makes it more responsible.
    How, in probation for example, can you help someone with a drug problem if disclose of use is also the admission of an offence?
    Drugs are a blithe on society, but only because they're management, supply, constitution and regulation are left in the control of criminal gangs. The USAs prohibition era is a perfect example of what happens when you ban supply but demand remains. There will always be a demand for drugs, and a big demand, so there will always be someone prepared to supply them.
    It's the basic economic model of supply and demand that our conservative government are so proud to boast about.
    Accept the problem and take ownership of it, otherwise it will just get worse.
    It's not being tolerant about drug use, it's being responsible about the impact drugs have on society.


    1. Gang leaders who trafficked a teenager from north London to Wales to deal drugs have been jailed under modern slavery laws, in the first case of its kind.

      Prosecutors said the young woman was treated “like a commodity” by Mahad Yusuf, 21, and Fesal Mahamud, 20, who were members of a street gang based in Enfield.

      They used social media to target their victim last May, promising work to lure her to meet them in North London. Then they drove her to Swansea.

      There, Yusuf told the woman she now “belonged to him”, her mobile phone was destroyed and she was held in a flat.

      She was also beaten, punched in the face and forced to conceal Class A drugs inside her.

      Scotland Yard identified the address as a suspected hub for the supply of the supply of drugs along so-called “county lines” from London to Wales.

      Five days after the 19-year-old woman went missing, officers found her when they raided the home on 25 May.

      Police said Mahamud remained in London to direct the drug dealing in Swansea via mobile phone. Yusuf acted as an “enforcer”, ensuring deliveries reached their destination.

      The men pleaded guilty to trafficking the woman for the purposes of exploitation under the Modern Slavery Act and conspiracy to supply Class A drugs at Swansea Crown Court.

      Mahamud, of Enfield, was jailed for 10 years and Yusuf, of Edmonton, for nine. Both men have also been made subject of a 20-year Slavery Trafficking Prevention Order.

      Nicola Rees, of the Crown Prosecution Service, said text messages and CCTV evidence proved the young woman’s “harrowing” account of her experience.

      “The teenage girl at the centre of this case was trafficked and abused by gang members in order to deal drugs,” she said. “She was treated as a commodity, transported to an unfamiliar location without any means of contacting her family or friends and forced to carry Class A drugs.”

      Scotland Yard said the case was the first time in British legal history that human trafficking legislation was used in a “county lines” case.

      Detective Inspector Rick Stewart, who led the investigation, said: “The victim in this case suffered a horrendous ordeal at the hands of these two men, who trafficked her for their own criminal gain.

      “She showed tremendous courage and bravery in coming forward. Her bravery has undoubtedly prevented other people from being exploited. Today’s sentence reflects the seriousness of this heinous crime and sends a message that the exploitation of young people will not be tolerated.”

      Detective Superintendent Tim Champion, who leads the Met’s work against county lines gangs, said the exploitation of young and vulnerable people to move drugs across the country was taking supply “to a new level”.

      “We will prioritise these criminal networks and utilise all legislation available to disrupt their offending and safeguard those caught up in 'county lines',” he added. “These offenders are trafficking young people to maximise their profits in the drug market and the use of the Modern Slavery Act is a proportionate and necessary response.”

      The landmark case came after officials warned that British people are making up the largest proportion of known modern slaves in the UK for the first time.

  2. I don't see why an organised pilot and investigation into the pros and cons of drug legalisation could not be conducted in the UK.
    Select three areas defined as socially deprived, that already have a drug problem and high unemployment, allow local government in those areas to produce and sell cannibis in an organised way for 18 months, and then assess what impact it has had socially and economically on that area.
    I think the economic benefits would be considerable to areas like Blackpool, Grimsby or Sunderland, and the information gathered on drug related crime and unemployment would help inform national drug policy.
    If no benefits are realised, then just pull the plug.

    1. Any legalisation of drugs would have to remain under strict State control. Privatising or outsourcing any aspect of drug legalisation to corporations such as Sodexo, Interserve, G4s etc, would just be the same as handing back control to the criminals.

  3. I'm very disapointed with the response today's blog has attracted.
    Every probation officer in the country must have a case load of people that have drug issues. But no one has anything to say.
    It's very different if the blog is about pay and conditions, privatisation, or being let down by the unions. Everyones shouting then.
    You're in it for the money, or you're in it for the cause. It's the safe place, or make a difference.
    Everyone makes there own mind up.
    Thankyou for today's blog Jim.


    1. There’s two comments above, perhaps from probation officers, and mine makes 3. I think it’s only nowadays PO’s are straight-laced-stick-up-the-backside types. Many of the older generation were the weed smoking type so I’m sure many have a view on this issue. In terms of the article at hand, I have mixed feelings. On one hand I support drug legalisation, taxation, etc. On the other, I do not believe it is necessarily the best way to resolve the drug problem. Legal or illegal, drugs are here to stay, but if we can’t have a proper debate about making alcohol illegal then have can we debate making drugs legal. I think the way forward is in pilot cities for cannabis legalisation in franchise “coffee shops” and a plant or two permitted for home growing. Other drugs may be available on prescription, such as cannabis oil, heroin, etc, but I don’t think we’ll be reverting back to opium dens any time soon. What I don’t support is this myth that legalising drugs will reduce violent crime because there are many other factors involved. This is political bullshit and not a basis for legalising drugs. Amber Rudd is talking out her backside, as is this silly Adam Smith Institute. For the record in some areas you’re more likely to be mugged buying a bottle of wine from your local offy where all the pissheads congregate than from your dealer who discreetly delivers to your house after hitting him up on Snapchat. Nobody is “going down dark alleyways”!!

    2. Also, for the record, I do know that cannabis oil is available in coffee shops too. It was a rushed comment. Big fingers small phone.

    3. I think it is a well worn debate but most of us are aware that political courage is lacking or more cynically it ain't a vote winner, imagine the headlines. Political impasse.

  4. Maybe if Wild Bill “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” Clinton had instead admitted to inhaling the first world drug policy would by now be drastically different;

    “But when I was in England I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale it, and never tried it again.” Bill Clinton

    I reckon Rudd and May didn’t even ‘not inhale’ secondary smoke.

  5. On a separate note have been truly shocked by plight of Windrush generation. Truly a national shame and I believe symptomatic of an ugly kind of politics. The government were warned several years ago but ignored the warnings repeatedly. Sorry is not good enough.

    1. Racist UK 101. And how many are on in prison and probation? Amber Rudd involved once again. Probation and government agencies paying lip service to the Lammy Review but none have provided advice for the many needing an immediate and cost free resolution.

  6. Not a vote winner the liberal government in Canada were deemed a few years ago to how no chance however standing on a platform including legalising cannabis soon changed that . For the record it is due to come into force in July and the person who has been in charge of implementation is the ex chief police officer of Toronto.

  7. Be careful what you wish for... It's as plain as it could ever be that legalising the supply and possession of class A and B drugs will hugely reduce crime. It's not that the substances themselves are inherently expensive -- it's their illegality that keeps the prices high.

    So why hasn't a UK government ever legalised them? Answer: it would lead to many job losses across the criminal justice system. If you work in policing, courts, prisons or probation your job depends on crime figures remaining above a certain level. Legitimise the drugs trade and a significant number of these jobs will quickly disappear. And there would be indirect effects too. For example governments would not need as many prison places -- what would happen to the contractors who design, build and supply prisons? That's a big industry. What about addiction counselling? Legalising drugs would lead to fewer addicts, not more. So what happens to those jobs?

    The people with most to gain if the drugs trade became legitimate would mainly live in poor housing, often in high crime inner city areas. The people with most to lose would be from a more middle class demographic who would often live in relatively pleasant surroundings with a lower crime rate.

    I can imagine a radical new Labour government considering a bold move like this. But a Conservative government surely wouldn't -- why would a Conservative government want to do something that benefits the poor and penalises the better off?

    The UK political system is designed to make sure that not much ever changes. The legalisation of drugs is too adventurous and too much depends on things staying as they already are. And that's why you are unlikely to see any bold moves towards legalisation.

    1. Nice argument, but of course criminal activity would adapt to the changes and go back to protection rackets, increase people-trafficking, modern-day slavery, prostitution, fraud, mobile phone theft, etc, etc, etc