The failure of prohibition to deter drug abuse has not been
sufficiently recognised, writes Conrad Russell, yet the Runciman
Commission gives another chance for a fresh approach.
Drugs policy is one of a growing number of issues that divide,
not class from class in the traditional sense, but the over-60s
from the under-30s. Since, by and large, the over-60s vote, and the
under-30s do not, it is an issue on which politicians are
peculiarly unable to be impartial. That is why we must be
especially grateful to the Police Foundation and the Prince’s Trust
for setting up an independent commission, under Lady Runciman, to
review the drugs laws.
This is no collection of left-wingers to be pilloried by the
Daily Mail. The Police Foundation is acting on a call made by the
Association of Chief Police Officers in 1994. Those who talk of a
‘war on drugs’ should be prepared to accept an exhortation to
listen to the commanders in the field. The Prince’s Trust, an acme
of respectability with no connection to the government, reminds us
of one strong argument for retaining a monarchy.
These bodies do not speak for any particular alternative
strategy but they do see that our existing policy is not working.
One in four people aged between 16 and 29 admit to having used an
illegal drug. Clearly, penalties have not deterred them.
Imprisonment of drug addicts is doing nothing to discourage them
either. Recently, BBC2’s Newsnight interviewed some inmates of Hull
Prison who claimed to have become drug addicts while incarcerated.
The governor, confronted with this claim, could only say that he
could well believe it.
The first thing we need to understand is that there is not one
single substance known as ‘drugs’.
I once listened to a pupil describe the collapse of a family –
as respectable as it was dysfunctional – who concluded his
catalogue of woes by saying: ‘and my little brother has taken to
drugs’. I immediately asked: ‘what drugs’, only to get the reply:
‘I don’t know – does it matter?’
Until we can get beyond this attitude, we cannot even begin to
consider which substances should be prohibited and which permitted.
To undertake this task, we must try to do what politics finds
remarkably difficult: to make a rational assessment of risk.
All societies so far recorded have used some form of artificial
stimulant, and almost all these stimulants have involved risk.
Alcohol always has, as any study of seventeenth century murder
indictments will show.
The nineteenth century temperance movement tried a little
harder, yet the Liberal Party got its fingers burned by getting too
close to it, and, in the 1874 election, was ‘borne down in a
torrent of gin and beer’. Perhaps no proposal made by the present
government has provoked so much ridicule as that to criminalise
smoking by 16 or 17 year olds. To make any substance criminal, it
is necessary to show not only that it does harm but also that
prohibition enjoys substantial public support.
Some substances, the commission will decide, need control. There
will be general astonishment if these substances do not include
heroin, cocaine and crack. When that decision has been taken, they
will be faced with the much more difficult decision of how control
should be exercised. It should not be taken for granted that the
present method is the best one. I hope the commission will give due
consideration to James Bon’s thesis that ‘prohibition is the mother
I hope the commission will consider sending drug addicts to
treatment centres rather than to prison. No drug addict gives up
simply because of rational calculation. In these circumstances
deterrence, which assumes the rationality of the criminal, has no
effect. A real addict will not give up even if he faces life
imprisonment. Perhaps a controlled, legal supply under medical
supervision might cut out the small dealer and even bankrupt him.
Perhaps it would do more to discourage the supply of cocaine from
Colombia if we paid more for our coffee than by pursuing all the
enforcement measures in the world.
The real challenge, which we are failing to address, is how to
get addicts weaned off their addiction. Physical addiction, the
bodily habit of ingesting a particular substance, has been the
subject of distinguished research, and is reasonably well
Psychological addiction is a much tougher nut. This is the
belief that it is impossible to tackle life without a crutch. With
a real crutch, you do not persuade the patient to throw it away by
shouting, like a sergeant major, ‘you ‘orrible little man’. You
persuade him, bit by bit, that he is better off without it. The
more you inflame his fear, the more you make him cling to his
crutch. Anti-drug propaganda (including anti-smoking propaganda)
does not understand this. For many smokers, nothing does more to
increase their addiction than anti-smoking propaganda. Is
anti-drugs propaganda any better?
The real challenge will come when the commission issues its
report. Lady Runciman will not have forgotten what happened to her
husband’s Royal Commission on the criminal justice system, and will
be determined that her report should enjoy a better fate. If she
recommends anything other than the present system, she will face a
terrifying blast of hostility. In the Littleborough and Saddleworth
by-election in 1995, where the winning candidate was one of the
first to recommend a Royal Commission, he faced a hate campaign
such as I have not seen in any other election. My son, a university
graduate of a few weeks’ standing, looked at this propaganda and
said: ‘Where have these people been living?’
Lady Runciman will give people the chance to be better informed.
She should not expect them to take it.