Why more policing won’t solve the drugs ‘problem’

The drugs may not work, but writes Dave Kellaway, neither does the Tories latest drug policy.


There is a memorable scene in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 oscar winning movie, Traffic, where the conservative drugs Tsar starts to give his speech at the White House about dealing with the drugs problem. He starts off with the usual platitudes but a few minutes in starts to stumble and finally blurts out that it is ‘not a war on drugs but a war on our families’ and it does not work. His daughter was an addict and the Mexican president he had been working with was colluding with one of the cartels. All the billions of dollars being spent to stop the drugs trade was having zero effect.

Watching Boris Johnson’s next big initiative yesterday you begin to understand that politicians have learnt practically nothing from the day that film came out 20 years ago. Indeed even earlier than that many specialists, researchers and workers directly dealing with drug users were saying the same thing – more policing, more draconian laws and more moral homilies on the evil dealers – do not change anything. I remember writing an undergraduate sociology essay back in 1971 around the arguments for the legalisation of soft drugs. Even some British police chiefs like Durham’s Mike Barton have argued for a completely different approach since 2013. Countries like Portugal have opted for a medical and social approach to drug dependency with some success.

Johnson’s proposals with its slight nod to the need for treatment for 300,000 drug users shows that the debate has shifted slightly but overall the policy is more of the same and it is hopelessly underfunded. So the eye-catching headline was the removal of driving licenses and passports from drugs offenders. There was even a demagogic targeting of the middle-class cocaine user in this respect. The reality is that poorer working class and black people are overwhelming the victims of a one-track repressive policy. 

Starmer’s main response for Labour was to point out that the resources available for treatment and policing had been systematically cut over the last ten years. There was no alternative framework laid at all, just a vague call for strategy and plans with Labour waiting to see before commenting further. Elliot Chapell on Labour List (7 Dec) cites the response of workers in the field:

Policy lead at Release Laura Garius welcomed additional spending on treatment, she warned that the focus on punishment for supplying or using drugs “ensures that the UK remains firmly in a failed war on drugs”.

Marie Edmonds, who founded the charity Aspirations Program to help people with addictions recover, said that ministers were proposing more community-based drug rehabilitation orders but argued that they “don’t work”.

She instead advised that the government make available facilities for detox with specialist treatment providers where addicts could address the root causes of their issues. Spending on treatment for drug abuse fell by 17% in the four years up to 2018-19, with a 28% cut for young people’s services.

Starmer, like Johnson, is terrified that Labour will take on the label of liberal or woke on drugs if he broke from a consensus determined more by tabloid editors than scientific experts or people on the ground. Reducing the whole problem to evil county lines dealers, like saying the people smugglers cause the migrant issue, is to misunderstand the whole process of drug dependency.

Why is there a problem in the first place?

Drug abuse can ruin lives across all classes of society but research shows that the poorest are affected the most. It is working-class and black people who end up in prison for using or selling drugs. The city traders who use cocaine tend not to end up inside. According to the latest reports, it seems that members at Westminster do not either. 

It is not rocket science to say that people who are unhappy, who are alienated from the wealth or rewards of capitalist society will tend to find some solace in the pleasures of drug use. It was ever thus – hence why socialists in the 19th century onwards often argued for temperance on the basis that alcohol was ruining working-class communities. Our rulers are quite content for working-class energy or anger at their lives to be dissolved in alcohol or numbed by prescription drugs rather than lead to collective opposition to their regime. Particularly if there are big profits to be made in selling alcohol, just as there is in getting working people hooked on gambling. Brewers and drinks companies, as well as the major bookmakers, have always been donors to the Tory party. 

The fact that alcohol is legally available on the capitalist market while it is as dangerous or more than most illegal substances leads to double standards when confronting drug dependency. Soft drug users who use marijuana or ecstasy (MDMA) at weekends are demonised while alcohol use which leads to huge social costs in terms of traffic accidents, violent injuries and domestic abuse is not framed in the same way. One of the differences between countries like Italy and Britain is the way that drunkenness is socially tolerated much more here than there. So the ruling ideology on drug use is contradictory.

A more rational approach to drugs would recognise that certain soft drugs like cannabis can have positive medical applications, for example, to relieve pain. We could also learn lessons from the way pre-capitalist societies integrated a socially controlled use of drugs in rituals and festivals without producing the horrendous social consequences we see in our society. The current exhibition on Peru at the British Museum has lots of evidence of that.

Socialists should be arguing for a social and medical approach to drug dependency. We need to recognise how capitalist inequality and austerity create the conditions for drug abuse. Lack of meaningful work, increasingly scarce youth services and underfunded education all contribute to the problem. Governments and some so-called specialists like to detach one issue from the other. So we just look at child poverty isolated from economic exploitation or ‘levelling up’ purely in geographical terms. We need to get Labour politicians to visit Portugal and other places where more progressive approaches are being tested out in practice. We must force Labour to break with the ideological consensus on the ‘drug problem’.

Legalising drugs also provides an opportunity to remove the material basis for inter-gang violence in the big cities. Given how our society operates is it any surprise that gangs act like entrepreneurs marketing a product that has a substantial market value? Trying to cut off a supply chain controlled by criminal gangs, that can pay off governments and their repressive agencies to ensure their product gets to market, is never going to work. Imprisoning users or the dealers at the end of the supply chain will not be a solution either. Combining a huge medical/social/educational programme with a  state-regulated supply might just be the beginning of a way forward.  

Changing society so that inequality is constantly reduced and people have more and more of their needs met in common and irrespective of their income, would be a more permanent and sustainable way of solving the drugs problem.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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