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August 30, 2007 - The Times (UK)

Column: Give Peace A Chance -- Forget The War On Drugs

We Need a Radical Approach to Tackling Crime on British Streets

By Anatole Kaletsky

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When a newly appointed minister arrives at his office in Whitehall, the first thing his permanent secretary gently tells him is to avoid simple answers to complex problems.

What I am about to say therefore guarantees that I will never be asked to join a government advisory panel or Royal Commission; but since I can earn a decent living without having to impress politicians, let me break the taboo. The fact is that many complex problems do have simple answers.

What politicians mean when they say "there are no simple answers" is that the simple answers are not the same as easy ones. The easy answer to almost any political problem is to highlight its complexity, plead for patience, appoint a policy czar and set up a Royal Commission. The simple answer is often to do something bold and previously unthinkable. In other words, to cut the Gordian knot instead of trying to untie it.

Simple answers have resolved many of most intractable problems. Gordon Brown should know this better than anyone, having rescued Labour's economic reputation by the simple, though far from easy or riskless expedient of Bank of England independence.

John Major, by contrast, allowed his Government to be paralysed because he rejected the simple answer to the ERM currency blunder, which was to pull Britain out voluntarily before it was expelled. That experience was eerily reminiscent of the far greater interwar disaster of deflation caused by the gold standard, ultimately resolved in the same simple way -- by pulling out. This action prompted Sidney Webb's famous lament on behalf of the ruined Labour Government: "Nobody told us we could do that."

Simple solutions are just as important in diplomacy as in economics. The simple answer to Hitler was the one urged by Churchill, but rejected by Chamberlain: urgent rearmament. The simple answer to the reconstruction of postwar Europe was the Marshall Plan: instead of demanding reparations from Germany, give it aid. The answer when George Bush asked for Tony Blair's support in his ill-considered Iraq invasion should have been even simpler: Just Say No.

This famous slogan from America's War on Drugs brings me to my main subject. As has been so apparent from the past week's events, Mr Brown now faces a host of problems more daunting than any he imagined at the Treasury. Yet there is a common thread linking the British Army's failure to bring order to large parts of Afghanistan controlled by the Taleban and the British police's failure to bring order to large parts of our inner cities controlled by gangs of gun-toting youths. That common thread is drugs.

The UN report published this week on the huge expansion of opium production in Afghanistan's lawless Helmand province has turned into common knowledge what British diplomats and generals have been whispering for years: the Taleban and al-Qaeda are making vast profits from the international drug trade. Official efforts to eradicate poppies are not just failing but are actually promoting more opium production by turning many remote regions of the country into anarchic no-go zones, completely beyond the control of coalition forces. The anti-drug campaigns are also strengthening the Taliban militarily by turning local populations against the allied forces and the Afghan Government, since these threaten the opium farmers' meagre livelihoods.

Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that efforts to promote economic development, education and political reconstruction in Helmand are failing. Such efforts may be necessary to win the "hearts and minds", but development campaigns cannot even get started so long as local people see government officials and British soldiers as alien interlopers, bent on destroying the only economic and social structures that actually work in their communities, which happen to be based on drugs.

Back on the streets of Britain we see a similar process. Why have the police lost control of the streets in so many British cities to armed gangs with easy access to weapons and growing propensities to violence? Partly, perhaps, the violence is due to failures in the criminal justice system: mismanaged police priorities, excess bureaucracy, lax sentencing and so on. Partly, the inner-city anarchy stems from poor education, joblessness and family breakdown. Rampant consumerism, our winner-takes-all culture and violence in music and videos no doubt play a part. The list of underlying causes for social breakdown and teenage alienation is endless.

This complexity would seem to suggest that we cannot even think about the violent crime wave, until all of our society's manifold economic, psychological and educational problems can be resolved. That, of course, means we must cede our city streets to gangs more or less for ever -- which is precisely the attitude adopted by many police forces, judges and politicians until now.

But what if, instead of looking for the root causes of crime and social breakdown, we consider what might have changed in recent years to encourage more teenagers to carry weapons? The answer then becomes much simpler. As in Helmand, many inner-city estates have created an alternative social order where the economics of the hugely profitable drug trade are far more attractive than any other choice.

And just as in Helmand, the efforts to suppress drug-use and trading have distracted the police and the courts from the infinitely more important tasks of preventing violence and keeping control of the streets. For example, tougher sentences for carrying knives or guns are pointless when the law already imposes even longer prison terms -- up to life for large quantities -- on people who carry drugs, which many of the teenage gangs habitually do. Similarly, zero-tolerance policing, which could certainly help to get weapons off the streets in the right conditions, is of little use if prisons are so overcrowded with drug offenders that there is no room for violent criminals carrying knives and even guns.

All these observations point to a simple conclusion: simple, though not easy. The global war against drugs is in contradiction to the war against violent crime at home and the war against terrorism internationally. Legalising, or at least decriminalising, drugs would, not on its own, end terrorism or gang violence -- and it is no substitute for long-term measures to promote development abroad or improve education at home. But a ceasefire in the war against drugs would at least give peace a chance -- not only in Afghanistan, but also in the streets of Britain.

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