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Fight or flight: Our stark choice over drugs


Neil McKeganey directed the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University from 1994 to 2011 and now runs it as an independent research group. David Raynes, formerly a senior Investigation Officer in HM Customs & Excise, has since dedicated his life’s work to drugs prevention. Between them they lead resistance in the UK to the seemingly persuasive but deeply flawed, internationally financed drugs legalisation advocacy that has, over the years, resulted in the de facto liberalisation of the UK’s drugs laws and decriminalisation of drugs use and supply. Today we are witnessing the impact on the fabric of our society that Professor McKeganey forecast in his contribution to the 2005 Brain Science and Addiction Foresight Report.

It is always a bad sign when the police tell you that they have not lost control of the streets. If they had that control it would hardly need pointing out and, with more murders in London this year than in New York, the signs are far from encouraging. It will come as no surprise that at the heart of much of the escalating levels of street violence in London and elsewhere is our burgeoning drugs problem. As if this alarming state of affairs were in need of further graphic illustration, we heard last week that seaside towns, so long the backbone of our flagging domestic tourist industry, have become centres of the drug epidemic’s rising toll of addict deaths.

Increasingly it is not just the police that have lost control of our streets, it is our hospitals, our social work services, our child protection services and our schools. All of these services are struggling to cope with a drug problem that is beyond anything they have seen before. In 2005 the present writer Neil McKeganey wrote a report for the UK government forecasting what the UK drug problem might look like in 25 years. That report set out a vision of a drug problem that was undermining virtually every facet of public life. We are now seeing that gloomy prediction coming true.

The problem with illegal drugs is that it is a problem that knows no limits. In an increasing number of our communities the trade in and use of illegal drugs has created a self-perpetuating world with its own career structure, financial rewards and status for the few and limitless pain for the others, its own social structure, its own laws and – after a fashion – its own law enforcement. This is a world of organised and uncompromising euro-criminality that has exploited and corrupted the EU vision of free movement of people, jobs and money.

The police response to the toxic mix of street drug dealing, weapons and violence has been to scale back the stop and search tactic for fear of alienating certain social groups. That sensitivity might be easy to understand but as Trevor Phillips, the past head of the Commission for Racial Equality, recently pointed out, it’s not young white males who are killing each other in our inner cities but young men and women of Afro-Caribbean heritage. It is not only stop and search that has been scaled back in an attempt to soften law enforcement. We have seen drugs squads across the UK disbanded. In Scotland, the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency merged into Police Scotland, thereby losing its distinctive drugs focus. In England the much-championed National Crime Agency is under-resourced and over-tasked. Ministers like to talk up the NCA as the UK’s FBI equivalent. The reality could hardly be more different. The UK Border Force, a service whilst having some responsibility for drugs enforcement, has no operational investigational capacity. Each of these developments, along with the reduction in police numbers, has served only to make the UK a less, not more, hostile environment for those engaged in the drugs business.

The growth in the UK’s drug problem, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, has found a powerful accelerant in wider social changes over the last thirty years. In many of the Black and Minority Ethnic Communities there has been a weakening of family structures that has seen increasing numbers of young people find a substitute family in gang membership. Little wonder that the Labour MP Diane Abbott explains her decision to send her son to public school as a way of keeping him from joining one of the London gangs.

In response to the escalating drug problem, we have national and local politicians talking increasingly about the need to set up drug consumption rooms where addicts can use illegal drugs under some level of medical supervision. This, we are told, is needed to reduce the toll of addict deaths. Creating centres where the use of illegal drugs is officially sanctioned is just the latest initiative in a policy of so-called ‘harm reduction’ that is winding its way towards the legalisation of all drugs. It is a policy which has absorbed billions in public money but which has serially failed to reduce the harms of illegal drugs to either the users or to the wider community.

We now have a stark choice. Either we get much tougher in tackling our drugs problem or we increasingly retreat to gated communities that seek to keep the drugs problem at arm’s length. It has been reported that Donald Trump is actively considering the death penalty for those involved in the drugs trade. There have been howls of liberal protest at that suggestion, but we should be in no doubt about the fact that there is already a death sentence being handed out to those engaged in the drugs trade, only it is being paid by the users not the dealers. We have got to make drug use and drug dealing a much less appealing prospect for young people. To do that we need to substantially increase the funding and the expertise in our enforcement agencies and allow them to mount a determined fight back against the drugs trade that has flourished within our communities. Once we have achieved a greater level of safety within our communities, the various other services can begin to discharge their own responsibilities with greater effectiveness.

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