Since the 1970s, drug policy in the UK has been enforcement-based.
Three-quarters of the available money is still being spent on
policing the crisis, with the remaining quarter divided between
prevention, harm reduction and treatment. But a change is in the
Hardly anybody believes the availability and use of drugs can be
substantially reduced by law enforcement alone. Despite the efforts
of the police and courts, four million people took illicit drugs in
this country last year. Despite the efforts of customs and excise,
the international drugs trade is a £300bn global industry,
accounting for 8 per cent of world trade. The “war against drugs”
is over. We lost. As the Home Affairs Select Committee recently
concluded, “policies based wholly or mainly on enforcement are
destined to fail”.
Where do we go from here? Increasingly, and rightly, the focus is
on problem use, which has a devastating impact on users, their
families, neighbourhoods and society as a whole. Research by
academics at York University has found that a tiny minority of
problem users of crack/cocaine and heroin are responsible for the
lion’s share of the economic and social costs of illicit drugs.
About £6m a year is spent on young recreational users. The
total cost of problem use is anywhere between £10.1bn and
£17.4bn – that could be as much as £35,455 per user per
annum. More than 80 per cent of these costs are accounted for by
So what should we be doing? For drug-dependent offenders, a shift
to a more treatment-oriented approach is in evidence. This is
welcome, but it is important not to abandon an overly punitive
approach for an excessively therapeutic one.
Why, after all, do people start taking substances such as crack and
heroin? Typically because they make them feel better for a while.
Escapism appeals to those with things to escape from.
A credible drug strategy must address this. This means, for
example, tackling homelessness and providing better services for
prostitutes. It also means we shouldn’t be surprised if released
prisoners drift back onto drugs when they are left without housing,
training, employment or other support. Important as therapeutic
interventions are, drug-related crime is a social problem. It is
time to recalibrate the policy compass in this area – from warfare
Marcus Roberts is senior policy adviser at rehabilitation agency
Nacro and author of Drugs and Crime:From Warfare to Welfare, 2003