We can’t help addicts by making them criminals

By Heretic.Ape. · Nov 14, 2008 ·
  1. Heretic.Ape.
    It is curious how often the language of warfare is applied to the issue of drug misuse in Scotland. Routinely, we talk of war, of campaigns, struggles and battles. It might be helpful to continue the metaphor to examine and illuminate how we approach one of the major moral, social, economic and health issues of our time.

    Most wars consist of a series of campaigns and battles. In the war on drugs, we hear of regular victories against those involved in the supply of illegal narcotics. However, the record seizures are not necessarily a prelude to victory. Indeed, they may indicate the opposite and reflect the increasing availability of illegal drugs on the streets. Prison governors tell us drugs are freely available in their establishments. If that is the case in the country's most secure and controlled environments, what does it say about the chances of victory on the streets?

    All wars involve casualties and the war on drugs is no exception. The casualties are often the users themselves. I count myself lucky that my own family has, hopefully, passed the point where they might join the casualty list. Former colleagues and friends have not been so fortunate and have seen family members descend into the twilight of the drug subculture. As they have found to their cost, the lure of drugs has no respect for economic and family circumstances. However, the current, largely inflexible, responses drive users from the potential support of family and friends into the hands of those who exploit them. How many lives could have been saved had there been a strategy that did not rely so heavily on criminalisation?

    Wars usually involve collateral damage to civilians and other non-combatants. In the war on drugs, this equates to the wave of drug-related crime that blights many communities. It has been estimated that half the nation's crime is in some way drug-related and the victims are often the most vulnerable in society. At the risk of being anecdotal, many of the residents of my mother's sheltered-housing complex do not go out, fearful of being robbed in broad daylight. Victory in the war on drugs may come a little late for them.

    Propaganda has always been a feature of warfare. Massive amounts have been spent spreading the anti-drug message. Yet there is serious doubt as to the extent to which the battle for hearts and minds is being won. Despite the educational campaigns, many young people continue to have relaxed attitudes to drug use. They are choosing not to say no and most who become involved generally do not do so through ignorance. To many, it is a simply a commonplace and acceptable part of the weekend club scene that is pleasurable into the bargain. Drug misuse is not restricted to sink housing estates and sordid back streets. Users can hold down responsible jobs and do not necessarily have chaotic lifestyles.

    Young drug users are unlikely to be deterred by punitive and sanction-driven approaches. Whether we like it or not, today's young people do not respond well to directive-based approaches. Indeed, the risk may well be an added attraction for some.

    As with any social problem, we need to be more sophisticated and look more closely at ways of influencing the values and perceptions of those involved, and to increase their sense of responsibility for their own actions.

    In most wars, groups and individuals have been able to enrich themselves. That is certainly the case in the war on drugs. The huge rewards will always encourage suppliers at all levels to take risks to meet the demand. This is a global problem and no country can hope to eradicate drugs within its own frontiers without recourse to draconian strategies unacceptable in most cultures. The economies of entire nations have become increasingly reliant on the production and supply of drugs. International drug cartels have financial turnovers that match some countries' GDP. The lack of international will to defeat the suppliers means that the most effective approach may well be to undermine profitability totally through the creation of legal but controlled systems of distribution.

    In many ways, the war on drugs is a guerrilla war. History tells us most guerrilla wars end not in set-piece battles and victory but in negotiation and compromise. An uncompromising strategy reliant on criminalisation is likely to be self-defeating.

    It is sometimes forgotten that criminalisation of heroin took place only in the 1950s. As late as 1955, The Times published a leader headed "The case for heroin". It can hardly be argued that half a century of criminalisation has resulted in the disappearance of the problem. A strategy that involves further legalisation will involve risk and be unpalatable to many. But what is the alternative? We need to be realistic and pragmatic, and recognise that the war on drugs is lost. We must refocus on winning the peace. The alternative is to continue to accept the increasingly unacceptable levels of collateral damage that inevitably accompanies a one-dimensional strategy based on criminalisation.

    Doug Marr is a writer and educationist.

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