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January 10, 2005 - The Herald (UK)

Whose War Is It Anyway?

By Ian Bell

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The "war on drugs" has been going on for most of my life. This is not my definition of a successful sort of war, or of even an intellectually respectable war. As Doctor Russell Newcombe of Liverpool's John Moores University remarked during Drugland (BBC2, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday), if you pursue a policy for four decades "only to show that the problem got worse every year" you might want to trade your policy in for a new one.

Not a bit of it. The drug trade is worth UKP8bn a year in the United Kingdom alone, and therefore finances a great many otherwise "legitimate" businesses. There are estimated to be five million regular users of narcotics in the country, and no fewer than 20,000 dealers serving London, far less every seaside town, housing scheme and country village on the map. Across Britain, according to Newcombe, half a million people are involved in the sale of drugs.

Yet is prohibition discredited?

One aspect of this perennial farce that went almost unremarked in a fine piece of investigative journalism, was the extent to which the crusade against drug use has become a political shibboleth. No politician truly believes that the "war" has achieved anything, yet no-one in government would dare to be "soft", which is to say sensible, in dealing with the issue. The professor spoke, briefly, of the numerous coppers and legislators who admit privately that legalisation may be the only answer. Those same people, he said, return to the approved mantra whenever the cameras are turned on.

It is as though drugs have acquired an aura of unique evil. Ninety five per cent of drug use is classified as "recreational". In other words, it involves little risk of serious addiction or life-threatening overdoses. Equally, the sheer extent of drug use, having quadrupled over the past decade - four million cannabis smokers; one million cocaine users - of itself refutes the notion that lightweight narcotics lead inevitably to crack and heroin.

But while we tut over alcohol and frown over tobacco - both proven yet legal killers - the business executive with his line of Charlie or the teenager with his spliff are held to represent a menace to society itself.

Drugland's central purpose was simply to prove how ubiquitous drugs have become. Its first episode tracked the trade in London where, as Newcombe noted, many among the professional middle class use cocaine "like a double espresso, to give themselves a little boost". This is the city of Dial-a-Gramme and door-to-door delivery, where the quality of customer service to leafy suburbs or Chelsea flats can make or break a dealer's business, where coke is "part of the landscape now". It is no different in kind, as it happens, from the trade in Edinburgh or Glasgow, where you can also order marching powder as easily as pizza, but the scale of the metropolitan phenomenon beggars belief.

One counsellor called it an epidemic.

That was not clear, however, from Drugland's dispassionate reporting.

The people who acquire problems with their habits, it seems, are generally people with problematic personalities, people like Georgie. Clearly, she was a gel from an affluent background. Equally clearly, she took no moral position where the habits of others were concerned.

Given an ability to exercise self-restraint, she would still be doing coke. Her moment of truth came, nevertheless, when she realised that she could not stop, that one line of powder would always lead to another, and another still. One anonymous City type said, blithely: "I take drugs in the same way that people smoke a cigar after a nice meal." Georgie lacked his luck. She was like Paul, another thrusting City executive who had once worked all day, made a lot of money and stuck most of it up his nose. "It's not even a particularly enjoyable experience," he said, with the wistful air of one reformed.

He was talking, as it happened, of being alone and "completely paranoid".

For all that, Paul and Georgie were in the minority.

In a country obsessed with the feral behaviour of binge drinkers, it should long ago have been obvious that, if drugs constitute a serious problem, five million users would have shown up on the radar long ago. Patently, this isn't the case. "Montana," a small-time dealer making UKP1500 a week with his door-to-door service, spoke of all the "doctors, lawyers, and City types" who called on his services.

He was delivering to "some of the most famous addresses in London". Social breakdown had yet to ensue. Montana would not accept that he might be the source of anyone's problems. In his trade, there is no need, these days, to push drugs, such is the demand.

As Newcombe meanwhile argued, the biggest problem for a dealer is staying away from his own product, not the law or moral dilemmas. So did Montana have qualms? "Bollocks," said the disguised silhouette of a chubby little bloke. "Personal responsibility. Why am I responsible for your -ups in your life?"

Drugland's second and third episodes looked a little harder at this embodiment of laissez faire capitalist attitudes.

Snorting coke without culpability after a Hampstead dinner party is one thing; crack and smack on the housing schemes of greater Manchester may be quite another.

As reporter Sarah O'Connell discovered, the trade loses whatever glamour it might have possessed when poverty, crime and violence combine. Her report had undoubted force.

In such circumstances, indeed, drugs begin to resemble the cheap gin that cut a swathe through the British working class in the nineteenth century.

Watching some grim footage you wondered, despite it all, if society isn't looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Would legalised drugs have the same effects on the poor? If the trade is parasitical, feeding on the vulnerable, what would happen if you deprived the criminals of their meal tickets and their motive for turf wars and gun crime?

The final programme, concentrating on the island of Ibiza, seemed to suggest that illegality was itself the real drugs problem. "Sure, we will win this war," said the chief of police with a bright smile and no conviction whatever.

The truth revealed by undercover filming, old news to Europe's clubbers, is that the resort is awash with every intoxicant you care to name. The Spanish police are lenient towards possession for personal use; punitive towards dealers; but they rarely catch sight of the big traffickers. Ibiza has become a honey-pot for the continent's recreational users, and horribly tawdry into the bargain.

But how would it seem, you wondered, if it was not involved in "this war"? Whose war is it, in any case? Why does the use and abuse of narcotics propel a moral crusade when humanity's taste for getting out of its collective skull is as old as the species, when hashish is demonstrably less harmful than alcohol, when the failure of prohibition in the eternal business of human desire is beyond argument?

Journalism, TV journalism least of all, does not often promote rational ethical debate, but Drugland left you to ponder a final dilemma.

Could it be possible that the fruitless war on drugs is actually more damaging to society than any drug ever devised?

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