New Labour’s drugs policies don’t work

From Blair’s introduction of a drugs Tsar to the recent death toll linked to contaminated heroin in Glasgow and Dublin, drugs are rarely out of the headlines. Socialists need to work out a clear policy on the issue. In the first contribution to the debate, Hannah Sell suggests some issues which Socialists need to consider.

New Labour’s drugs policies don’t work

NEW LABOUR in government has continued Tory policies in every single sphere, including drugs policy. Despite objections from such pillars of the establishment as bishops, Chiefs of Police, even some New Labour MPs, Tony Blair insists that government drugs policy will remain exactly as it has been for the last twenty years.

This approach allows New Labour to appear ‘tough on drugs’ but as a way of dealing with the problems it is proven to have failed. Firstly it is increasingly seen as hypocritical.

Certain drugs are criminalised while others, such as alcohol and tobacco, which can also be very harmful, are sold legally in vast quantities.

Secondly, while the current ‘just say no’ policies have been in place, there has been a massive increase in the use of illicit drugs.

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

In Britain, the amount of drugs seized by police and customs increases every year. In 1975 there were 10,648 seizures, in 1995 there were 115,000. This is not because HM Customs are becoming more efficient. They themselves estimate that they seize about 10% of the heroin that comes into Britain.

The number of people arrested for drug offences has increased by 1,300% since 1969 – from 7,000 to 94,000 in 1995.

Some of those arrested are sent to prison. Yet the Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland estimates that 80% of prisoners in Scottish jails are using drugs. The figures for England and Wales are undoubtedly similar.

Social Blight

THE ABSOLUTE failure of Britain’s drugs policies does not just affect those who take illicit drugs. Heroin addiction, in particular, is a blight which is devastating many, mainly working-class, communities who are having to watch their children become addicted to heroin.

The number of notified heroin addicts tripled to 22,000 in the eight years up to 1994. Since then much cheaper heroin has flooded Britain’s streets. All the drug agencies agree that the number of heroin addicts is increasing, and they’re getting younger.

The Home Office estimate £1.3 billion is stolen every year to pay for heroin addiction. This is probably a gross underestimate; another report puts the figure at more like £10 billion.

In most cases, the people worst hit by drug related crime are the working-class estates where addicts live. In their desperation to feed a habit that costs hundreds of pounds a week many will steal from family, friends and neighbours.

It is absolutely clear that current drugs policies don’t work. Outlawing the use of some drugs doesn’t stop people taking them. What is the solution?

Firstly, no solution can be found through drugs policies alone (although this is very important). The more impoverished a housing estate the more addicts, to alcohol as well as heroin, there are likely to be.

We have to fight for decent living conditions; good cheap housing, well-paid jobs, access to education and leisure facilities. As long as young people are faced with a future of unemployment or low-paid work, and damp, dilapidated housing, escape through drug addiction will remain a major problem.

However a change in drugs policy is also desperately needed. Firstly, it is ludicrous to criminalise people 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, free 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.

Secondly, not all of the drugs that are currently illegal are the same, and a different approach is needed in each case.


PEOPLE IN Britain increasingly see cannabis as an acceptable recreational drug, similar to the way that alcohol and tobacco are seen. There are approximately six million cannabis smokers in Britain.

According to a survey in The Guardian, one-third of all 14 year olds have smoked cannabis. The vast majority of these people smoke an occasional joint in the same way that other people pop out for a quick pint. Yet they are criminalised.

Cannabis use accounts for 82% of people arrested for drugs offences. In 1997 two surveys in The Independent and The Mirror found that between 70 and 80% of people were in favour of relaxing the cannabis laws.

There is also increasing support from sections of the establishment for a change in the laws on cannabis. Many agree that it should no longer be a criminal offence to possess it. However, there is a strong case to go further.

If it remains illegal to sell cannabis, it forces users to go to illegal drug dealers to buy it. In Holland, where cannabis can be bought legally from coffee shops, heroin addiction has remained stable since 1980, while in most European countries it has increased markedly.

At the same time the average age of a heroin addict has gone up to 37 in Holland. This suggests that separating cannabis from other illegal drugs may have helped prevent a younger generation starting to take heroin.

This is a strong case for supporting the setting up of legal venues where cannabis can be bought for individual use. However, this cannot be put into the hands of big business. Marlborough tobacco company have already got the patent for “Marleys” their brand of marihuana cigarette!

If big business control the production of any drug they will be just as anxious to make a profit as the illegal drugs dealers, and they have far more resources to encourage people to use their product.

This would result in a huge increase in cannabis use – and huge profits for the tobacco and drugs industries. Instead the production and sale of cannabis should be licensed under democratic public ownership.

Alcohol and Tobacco

THESE DRUGS are by far the most widely used and therefore, the most harmful. More violent behaviour is caused by alcohol than any other drug. Any real drugs policy has to deal with these drugs.

All advertising of them should be banned. The only way to do this effectively is to bring the major companies into democratic public ownership. As long as multinationals control these industries they will try to maximise their profits by constantly getting more people addicted to the drugs they sell.


EVEN IF you’re lucky enough to get referred to an NHS drug treatment programme you’ll still have to wait up to six months to get a place. We urgently need a huge increase in the rehabilitation facilities available. These facilities should aim to get addicts off heroin.

However, as part of such a programme, rehabilitation facilities should also be able to prescribe heroin to registered addicts. Up until 1967 this was the way heroin addiction was dealt with in Britain. Then, under pressure from the US, the policy was changed.

However, this policy has been used more recently in Switzerland. A referendum voted overwhelmingly to continue with the programme. This was because addicts no longer had to steal or sell heroin to support their habit. This means less crime and fewer new addicts.

In Widnes, Merseyside a similar policy was introduced for a period. While the policy was used there was a 96% drop in economic crime and zero deaths from heroin use. There was a 92% drop in new addicts.

It may seem strange to argue for the prescription of heroin, yet methadone is commonly available on prescription to heroin addicts. Methadone programmes have had some success.

But methadone is not less harmful than heroin – it’s a highly toxic substance. In 1996, 45 people in Edinburgh died from taking methadone. In addition it does not have exactly the same effect as heroin, so the craving for heroin often remains.

The real reason for rescribing methadone instead of heroin is that the pharmaceutical industry sells it at a much cheaper price.

The programme briefly outlined in this article would be infinitively more effective than New Labour’s policies in reducing the harm drugs can do.

Nonetheless, it is only by getting rid of capitalism that we could really begin tackle the problems of drug addiction. As long as the multinational companies exist, both legal and illegal, they will make profits from selling drugs.

As long as there is poverty there will be a desire for anaesthetics to dull the pain. That’s why the fight against drug addiction has to be linked to the struggle for socialism.