Drugs Policies Still Aren’t Working

IN THE first in a series of articles on crime and related subjects, MIKE FORSTER looks at the question of drug abuse:

Drugs Policies Still Aren’t Working

NEW LABOUR commissioned the Home Affairs Committee to look into the problem of drug abuse in Britain and its link to crime. The Committee’s chairperson, Chris Mullins made some radical proposals, most of which are unlikely to be taken up by the government.

It is the clear failure of current drugs legislation that has led to calls for major changes in the law from many quarters; including sections of the police and Chris Mullins. Over the last ten years, the number of young people in jail for drug-related offences has increased by 400%! For young women the proportion is even higher.

Yet the threat of jail has not stopped the increase in illegal drug use. Just over 50% of young people have used one illegal drug or another in their lives, and the number experimenting with drugs continues to rise. As the Committee concluded, retribution and criminal sanctions alone have clearly failed.

For socialists, this cannot be an abstract moral question. All drugs, legal and illegal, especially taken in excess, are to some degree harmful. Nonetheless, all human societies have used drugs in some form or other. However, modern capitalism has led to drug addiction and dependency on an unprecedented scale.

Big business

Under capitalism, drugs are big business. Globalisation has made it easier to link the drugs market together on an international basis. For countries such as Afghanistan, drugs production is the mainstay of their economy. Millions of poor peasants internationally have been forced into drugs production as the only way in which they can scrape a living.

The United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) estimates that world trade in illicit drugs now stands at £250 billion per year, which is equivalent to 8% of world trade. That’s bigger than the world trade in iron or steel.

Governments in the advanced capitalist countries generally turn a blind eye to the drugs trade if it means they can keep ‘friendly’ regimes in the developing world on-side. The whole drug problem is endemic to capitalism.

Until control of the world economy is taken out of the hands of big business; through socialist ownership and workers’ control, the drug problem will remain with us. Capitalism will condemn many in future generations to a lifetime of misery and despair through inevitable drug addiction.

Addiction increasing

IN BRITAIN the increase in drug addiction is directly related to the crisis of British capitalism. Whole swathes of Britain’s former industrial heartlands have been devastated. In Barnsley where I live, former mining communities have had their hearts ripped out.

Young people can see no hope. The pit, the union and its social networks bound us all together. The Tories destroyed that social cohesion. Today, poverty, despair and anger have taken over.

Working long hours in a factory or down a mine was brutalising work. Nonetheless, the far worse alternative of unemployment or low-paid, temporary MacJobs has left a generation without the traditional route from school, through an apprenticeship, to secure long-term employment. For two or three generations, families have had to be brought up on the breadline.

Little wonder that a recent MORI poll found that the typical young offender is most likely to live in areas ravaged by de-industrialisation.

Full employment, decent housing, and a relevant, well-resourced education system would provide the seedbed from which hope and optimism can spring, which would undoubtedly result in a sharp decline in drug addiction and dependency.

Socialism is very clearly the answer because it would harness the enormous potential of human society – of science, technique and talent – to create a society that was able to provide a decent life for all.

However, socialists do not ignore the debate about drugs and its link to crime. Should we support measures to reduce drug dependency, and if so, how would that be done?

It is absolutely clear that current drugs policies do not work. Outlawing the use of some drugs doesn’t stop people taking them. It is pointless to criminalise someone for what they are doing to their own bodies. This is especially true, given the drugs they will come into contact with if they are sent to prison. Possession and use of any drug should not be a criminal offence.

In addition, people should be able to know what they are taking. Many drug-related deaths are caused by the user taking something completely different to what they have supposedly been sold.

Therefore, confidential testing facilities should be provided in clubs and community centres. Alongside this, literature giving balanced advice on the dangers of the drug concerned, and how to minimise them, should be available.

This article does not have the space to deal with the many illegal drugs that are currently in use. However, in many ways the most pressing question is the scourge of heroin and increasingly crack cocaine addiction.

Vicious spiral

THE LINK between crime and drug misuse principally revolves around the 200,000 or so ‘hardened’ heroin users. This figure has shot up from only 1,000 a generation ago. Once addicted, users are often driven to engage in crime in order to fund their habits.

This mostly impacts on working-class communities as robberies, burglary or aggravated assault increase dramatically. A vicious spiral of drugs and crime grips the users, destroying not only their lives, but also the lives of those who are indirect victims of their habit.

In response to this crisis whole estates, and sometimes ‘concerned mothers’ have combined together to drive suppliers out of their neighbourhoods. This can have some success, but ultimately it transfers the problem somewhere else.

The Home Affairs Select Committee raised the idea that heroin should be taken off the streets and provided in ‘shooting galleries’ supervised by health professionals. This would cut across the cycle of heroin addicts pushing heroin in order to fund their habit; thereby creating new addicts.

It would reduce crime as addicts would no longer have to steal. It would also prevent countless deaths from adulterated or unusually pure heroin, and from dirty needles resulting in HIV and hepatitis infection.

Positive approach

In Australia, our sister Socialist Party ran a highly effective campaign to secure a similar kind of treatment centre in Sydney. Hundreds of people were mobilised to fight for decent facilities for drug users who could feed their habit in safety and without the pressure of pushers on the streets.

If ‘shooting galleries’ were introduced in Britain, they would need to be publicly run and controlled. Not only would they need to be staffed by trained health professionals, but also they should offer safe ways of ending the addiction.

Trained health professionals should be able to prescribe diamorphine (or medical heroin) to registered addicts in some circumstances. Current practise is to prescribe methadone, which is no less addictive and harmful than heroin, but for many addicts does not satisfy the craving for heroin. It is therefore ineffective in preventing addicts from buying street heroin.

At the same time, former addicts would need help to try and lead a normal life once again, including help with housing and employment.

There could well be a reaction against society providing resources to help ‘druggies’ when there are not enough decent jobs and housing for everyone as it is. Setting up such centres has to be taken up alongside demands for proper facilities for all such as youth and community centres, proper training and affordable social housing.

Such an approach would allow socialists to show a way out of the blind alley of drug addiction, whilst also counter-posing the need to redirect more of society’s resources towards young people in general.

The Home Affairs Select Committee found that the link between crime and hard drugs now costs society billions. If just a fraction of this ‘lost’ revenue were channelled into effective measures to cure drug misuse, society might begin to see a more positive approach to tackling the problem.