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Drugs: are we serious?

Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley, thinks that we’ve never been totally committed to drugs control

Published on August 7th 2008.

Drugs: are we serious?

“Graham and I do drugs together.”

This is how Mo Mowlam, who I used to work with in the Cabinet Office, used to tease audiences when I was present at one of her speeches.

As Ministers in the Cabinet Office we had the responsibility of ‘joining up’ the Government’s policy on drugs.

A member of the House of Lords of my acquaintance, whilst residing at Her Majesty’s Pleasure said the biggest problem inside was trying not to get stoned on the fumes from the other inmate’s joints.

It very quickly became clear to Mo and myself that until there was a Cabinet decision, on whether or not drugs were a criminal problem with health consequences or a health problem with criminal consequences, joining up the policy was intractable, however many Drugs Tsars or Cabinet Office Ministers were involved.

To put this more starkly, this means that there never has been a war on drugs.

The policy has always been more headline than substance (if you forgive the pun). If you doubt this, think about drug use in prisons, it is estimated that 55% of prisoners have access to and use their illegal drug of choice, even though a sentence can be extended following a positive test for an unauthorised drug.

A member of the House of Lords of my acquaintance, whilst residing at Her Majesty’s Pleasure said the biggest problem inside was trying not to get stoned on the fumes from the other inmate’s joints.

If the Government can’t contain the drugs problem in a completely controlled environment, what chance is there on the mean streets of Liverpool, or in the sophisticated clubs of the West End?

Even though from my time in the Cabinet Office, I had known that a lot of the tough talk on drugs was empty rhetoric, I was surprised by the recent report by the UK Drugs Policy Commission, not by the analysis of the mature and flexible drugs market in the UK, but by their failure to locate any comprehensive, published UK evidence of the relative effectiveness of different enforcement approaches.

They weren’t even able to identify any comparative cost benefit or value for money studies relating to different levels of intervention within the United Kingdom, i.e. is going for Mr Big better than arresting street dealers and how do either of these approaches compare to treatment or demand reduction by education.

This comprehensive ignorance about a problem that disfigures and ruins many communities from inner-city Manchester to middle-class Surbiton is extraordinary.

It means that there is no evidence base to all the animated arguments there are about drugs.

If one discounts the ‘legalise tax and regulate all drugs now’ policy supported by The Economist and a small number of politicians (political oblivion awaits a party supporting this policy) - what should be done?

Here’s a couple of suggestions.

Those Ministers who believe that they are in possession of policies which will dramatically reduce or stop the taking of drugs should be given the comparatively easy task of stamping out drug use in prisons. Any lessons of failure and success they have there should apply to new policies for the rest of country.

There is a complete dissonance between social attitudes of the opinion forming classes and the law on drugs. What is the point of spending money on drug education programmes for teenagers when they know that journalists and BBC executives think it’s cool to do coke and smack?

So let’s have an education campaign directed at the middle class intelligentsia, to try and convince them that when snorting ‘coke’ at a dinner party they are also funding international crime.

The clear test for this policy will be when attitudes change sufficiently so that people report the use of Class A drugs, with the same alacrity that they would report a mugging or a sexual crime.

After all, the prison sentence for being involved in the drug business can be and often is longer than that for mugging or rape.

The Manchester Coroner recently said at the inquest into the death of an immigration officer that ‘drugs are cheap as chips’. Surely this should stimulate a move to more intelligent, evidence based intervention rather than simplistic headline led policies.

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19 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AeronAugust 7th 2008.

This debate isn't about your personal views on drugs Trevor and Mark; it's about how society should deal with them. There will always be people that take drugs, but should they be criminalised for it, even if, in your opinion, it makes them 'dickheads'? Furthermore, should we continue to allow organised crime to benefit from their supply or should the government take control by regulating their distribution? As for dickheads, have you wandered down Deansgate on a Saturday night? I think you'll find alcohol has a much more damaging effect on people's personality. However, 1930s America and its policy of prohibition ought to have taught us something about what happens when you make drugs illegal.

Derek WilliamsAugust 7th 2008.

Yet another politician writing rubbish about drugs. What is it with these guys that they can see the answer is legalisation, control and regulation but refuse to accept it because they think (without any real proof) that it's unpopular? Is doing things because they're popular more important than doing them because they're right?He's right in one way though, if we can't keep drugs out of prisons, we can't hope to keep them off the streets. All he needs to do is accept that fact as a fact and wake up a bit.As for the illegal drug trade being linked to organised crime, that's only happening because it's illegal - a problem caused by people like MP Graham Stringer.Illegal drugs are not controlled drugs despite what politicians tell you If you don’t control the market for a commodity, you don’t control that commodity. Instead we leave it to an unregulated black market dominated by organised crime, how stupid is that? Drugs are dangerous yes, so they should be controlled and properly regulated.Why do we elect such idiots?

AeronAugust 7th 2008.

Until politicians stop discounting the 'legalise, tax and regulate' option, there will never be any progress on an effective policy on drugs. Drugs are a health issue, full stop. There is only a criminal consequence because presently the marketplace is run by criminals. How many more decades of losing the so-called 'war on drugs' will it take for politicians, and society in general, to realise legalisation is the only option that should not be discounted?

JohnAugust 7th 2008.

Tell you what, let's build a Manchester Corporation cocaine factory in Eastlands - on the Super Casino site, sell the legalised product in Tesco Metro stores and get down to Grandmaster Flash and J.J. Cale while we stagger forth into a brave new city where 'don't give a **** about anything or anyone' is our motto and Hogarth's Gin Lane is the blueprint for a new metropolis of liberated and mono-nostrilled individualists. "WE ENLIGHTENED AND WORLD AWARE PEOPLE CAN'T THINK OF A SINGLE BETTER WAY TO SPEND OUR £40 THAN THIS!" shall be our war cry.

Trevor ArmstrongAugust 7th 2008.

I was at a house/dinner party the other day with about 12 people. Half were openly on coke and therefore constituted a separate party. It's dull, really dull, and bad manners and rude. And desparate. Like an idiot, pissed off as I was, I tried to point out the misery cocaine production caused in the countries that produce. Of course I was laughed at. Yet that same night we'd talked about the environment and social justice in the UK. ****ing hypocrites. Touchy feelie on one side, couldn't give a **** on the other.

Mark GarnerAugust 7th 2008.

Is it me, or does coke turn people into instant wnakers? The name 'dickhead dust' is apt, i can spot a coke head in 10 seconds and move well away. Instant bore should be the name.

Steve RollesAugust 7th 2008.

So let me get this straight. Having discounted the only option that might actually work (for what you openly confess are political not intellectual or practical reasons) you then apparently equate drug use with muggging and sexual assault suggesting it should be dealt with accordingly. This is afte the detailing how and why such an apporoach has and will continue to fail.Maybe I misundertand you but this seems to be a combination of political cowadice and abdication of leadership, with out and out denial of reality. I dont get it. She may have retired as drugs minister when she said it but at least Mo had the courage to grasp reality and publicly call for the only response that will work: legalisation and regulation. When that happens the coke at dinner party will be taxed by the state and not profiting organised crime or funding terrorism.

KlunksAugust 7th 2008.

John says.."glue sniffing, gun ownership, cocaine use..."Who mentioned gun ownership and what does that have to do with the current debate? Legal gun ownership does not contribute to illegal activities or the drug trade. Illegal gun ownership is only a by-product of the illegality of the drug trade and gang culture.Seeing all drug use as an addiction does not cover the millions of casual weekend users who choose when or where they can indulge in the recreational drug of their choice. Addiction can be treated by real choices in rehab and reduced prescription courses, where the patient still manages to hold down a job while taking part in their treatment, hence reducing the reliance on crime to pay for their 'habit'. Recreational drug use should be taxed and controlled to ensure the costs of any NHS treatment is covered. Smokers have supported the NHS for generations, why should the snorters get off scot free. Home grown cannabis should be permitted, up to three plants for personal consumption. Then the police that will now be available can concentrate on real crime like Speeding and Parking..........doh!

JohnAugust 7th 2008.

So you're advocating some kind of ethnic cleansing for drug users, Klunks? Kill off the surplus population by allowing them to commit slow suicide? Does the same go for the overweight who eat unhealthily? Those who choose to live in cities and develop respiratory diseases as a result of pollution? We shouldn't attempt to tackle the problems - just let the bastards die? Fair enough Klunks - many notable figures have shared your view. But it doesn't help the thousands of kids in Columbia maimed by landmines planted to protect jungle cocaine facilities; the farmers murdered by guerrillas because they refuse to grow drug crops; the poor innocent people in third world Africa unable to prevent organised drug trafficking via their coastlines, the 2.2 million hectares of rainforest destroyed to make way for coca crops... need I go on? It's not just Manchester's problem. But you'll know that, since you understand macro-level statistics.

JohnAugust 7th 2008.

And this business of equating alcohol consumption with cocaine use is nonsense. Going on an alcohol bender is very damaging, yes, but having a couple of glasses of wine is not. Cocaine use is just varying degrees of awful in health and social terms. It can never be healthy or safe or responsible. Unfortunately we can't legislate for people having a lack of self control, or against selfishness, oafishness etc etc. But we can decide as a society that the risks of certain things - glue sniffing, gun ownership, cocaine use etc are bad news and should be avoided.

KlunksAugust 7th 2008.

Currently tax levied on current recreational drugs like tobacco and Alcohol more than covers the cost of treating anyone unfortunate enough to fall foul of their side effects. If everyone lived till they were 80 through good health and lifestyle choices forced on them by society our ecomomy would be doomed by the strain on our working population. Live and let live I say.

PaulAugust 7th 2008.

One idiotic aspect of the status quo is that ecstasy pills are regularly not the real deal, and are in fact MCPP. Which is perfectly legal to produce. MCPP is used to induce migraines in test cases and to treat sleeping disorders; so basically you have a nasty time of it after the first hour or so.So in essence; it's legal to produce pills which make you rancid, yet "clean" ecstasy pills are illegal.Legislate and Educate...

JohnAugust 7th 2008.

Yes cocaine turns people into arseholes, yes it is really, really bad for you (even the really pure uncut stuff contains sulphuric acid, quicklime, cement etc etc etc in order to turn the pure coca into a white powder) and when mixed with alcohol it's even worse for you, but for me, the issue is the harm it does to the communities who are surrounded by its production in South America. Perhaps legalisation would have a positive effect for Manchester, Berlin, New York etc (it's a defensible argument, although I personally doubt it), but what about in Columbia? Drugs finance their decades old civil war - a war which has displaced many millions and every year leads to countless murders, orphaned children and other heartbreaking consequences. If Unilever or Merck suddenly started producing cocaine legitimately, would the problem go away? Of course not. The civil war still needs financing, so at best, something else would have to take cocaine's place, or, at worst - the industry would become corrupt - just like oil production and other valuable industries in the region. And we've not even started on the environmental costs of cocaine production, with ancient and irreplaceable rainforest being destroyed in order to grow coca leaf. The whole thing's just ****, in every way. And those who defend it ought to take a trip to Columbia and see if they don't change their minds.

JohnAugust 7th 2008.

'Klunks', if you'd bothered to read my entire post, you'd have understood that my point was that it is a good idea for the Government, and for society as a whole, to make judgements about what is generally acceptable in society, and what is not. Thus, gun ownership might well be enjoyed legitimately by some, but in general we think it ought to be discouraged (except for specific purposes), and therefore we legislate to make it more difficult - as we do against solvents being sold to young children. I made no link between drugs and guns and glue. And 'John N.' alcohol can be, and is, very easily enjoyed without health risks or negative social consequence here, or in the regions of its production. There are of course those who drink to excess, and as a resident of the city centre, I sincerely wish we could effectively legislate against drunken idiots. Don't you think that there's the slightest chance that hospital beds might be taken up by a greater proportion of people made ill by excessive cocaine and cannabis use, where they made legal? And if society suffers the consequences of excessive alcohol and tobacco use, why on earth is the answer to add even more dangerous substances to the legalised mix? My point was that cocaine can never be good for you, nor is it in any way positive for individuals, for Manchester, or for Columbia. The consequences of legalisation would not be wholly beneficial - the drugs barons would still have to make their money from something, their influence would still trickle down to the streets and the problem would not go away. Do you really suppose that organised crime would suddenly stop because cocaine was made legal? I don't think so - criminals would turn to another revenue stream and even more people would be seriously risking their physical and mental health by consuming a dangerous substance. I've never known a 'recreational' cocaine user who wouldn't have been much better off not touching the stuff, and I've known far too many. It is bad news, full stop.

Politicians with Balls requiredAugust 7th 2008.

Aeron, you are quite right. The party who grow a set of balls and legalise all drugs will be responsible for the following. 1. The collapse of international crime. 2. The collapse of burglaries. 3. The collapse of street muggings. 4. The collapse of anti-social behaviour on the streets. 5. The NHS being able to put more people on life saving drugs. Sounds like they would get in for a second term. But, a bit late to save my granny from having all her teeth kicked down her throat at eighty years of age by a smackhead looking for a five quid fix.

chizAugust 7th 2008.

I LOVE drugs, shoving them up my nose mmmm

CubbyAugust 7th 2008.

There's only one stop drugs being 'as cheap as chips', and that's make chips cheaper.Drugs are here to stay. People should have a choice what they put in their own body. Even though it will never happen the only sensible answer is to legalise.

Martin PowellAugust 7th 2008.

Mr. Stringer finds it "extraordinary" that the UKDPC report found there is no research comparing the effectiveness of different enforcement policies for drugs, so government policy is based on "comprehensive ignorance". One has to ask why he did not notice this when he was Cabinet Office Minister with responsibility for joining up thinking on drugs. More importantly what is he going to do to get the Government to now commission a full cost benefit analysis, which must include looking at strict regulation and control of drugs as well as the current prohibition, to see what would benefit society the most. The government's answer however was already given by one of Mr. Stringer's colleagues, Bob Ainsworth MP when Home Office Minister. He was asked this question (by Tranform Drug Policy Foundation) his response? "Why would we want to do that unless we were going to legalise drugs?". In other words they know all ready that if they did proper research it would show current policies cause far more harm than good, then they would no longer be able to pose as being "tough on the causes of crime" for short term political gain, even if that wrecks lives and communities.

John NAugust 7th 2008.

John: far from being nonsense, equating alcohol consumption with cocaine use is completely correct. Alcohol and nicotine for that matter are addictive, toxic drugs regardless of whether the Government are pimping off them or not. 40% of hospital beds are occupied by patients with alcohol related conditions. Legalise everything and let the individual make the choice which substance they wish to damage their body with, the social benefits would far outweigh the health are costs.

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