:: Article

Fact is, we went to war

By Max Dunbar.

Narcomania: A Journey Through Britain’s Drug World, Max Daly and Steve Sampson, William Heinemann 2012

We have been engaged in a war against drugs for 30 years. We’re plainly losing it. We have not achieved very much progress. The same problems come round and round. I have frankly conceded that policy has not been working. We are all disappointed by the fact that far from making progress it could be argued we are going backwards at times… The Government has no intention whatever of changing the criminal law on drugs.

– Ken Clarke, Secretary of State for Justice, Home Affairs Select Committee, July 3 2012

Don’t matter who did what to who at this point. Fact is, we went to war, and now there ain’t no going back. I mean, shit, it’s what war is, you know? Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.

– Slim Charles, The Wire, series 3, episode 12, ‘Mission Accomplished’

Let me introduce you to a maverick politician. The young MP entered Parliament at a time when his party was exhausted and factionalised. This MP seemed to be going places, and to represent a step forward for his party. He was a smart and personable man, and not afraid to take unorthodox positions. In 2002 he backed a Home Affairs select committee that recommended the downgrading of some illegal drugs, and the possibility of legalisation. The MP also recommended the prescription of heroin, and licensed ‘shooting galleries’ where addicts could inject drugs safely. In 2005 the MP gave an interview to the liberal Independent newspaper, in which he expressed weariness with machine politicians who ‘attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown. Drugs policy has been failing for decades.’ His name, of course, was David Cameron.

The coalition has yet to develop a sensible and coherent approach to drugs. Neither did the Labour government that preceded it. The last brave policy decision was made by the Thatcher government in 1988. It allowed the distribution of free syringes to heroin users. The papers, of course, went ballistic. The public shouldn’t be subsidising junkies, the tabloids said. The government ignored them. Huge amounts of Middle Eastern smack hit Britain’s streets in the 1980s. This influx created a generation of addicts, and a rocketing rate of HIV infections from intravenous drug use. HIV was spread by the sharing of works, and drug support workers had been giving out clean syringes illegally for years. The Thatcher administration set up two hundred needle exchanges. It was to be the final act of pragmatism in this area of policy.

Politicians are willing to criticise the war on drugs – after they have done their tour of duty. In Narcomania, their brilliant expose of the lie we fight on, Max Daly and Steve Sampson list numerous ex ministers from both parties, who from the safety of the back benches criticise government policy long after they had an opportunity to change it. The list includes Labour’s Claire Short, Lord Jenkins and Tony Banks and, from the Tory benches, Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo, and the noble Lords Baker and Lawson. Again, none of them made their interventions when these interventions could have counted. Cameron dropped his radicalism long ago. A Tory peer told the authors that the Prime Minister ‘still thinks drugs ought to be legalised, but if he’s questioned about it he runs sideways like a startled crab.’

This is a striking state of affairs. Governments are elected on change platforms. Once elected they announce a programme of Great Reforms for everything from welfare to schools to bin collection. And real progress has been made on formerly controversial issues like gay marriage. Yet UK drug policy remains preserved in aspic. When government commissions even suggest that a change is needed, or point out the exaggeration of health risks, their reports are torn up and their academics denounced in the press. It is as if, once someone assumes serious elective office, they are taken into a Whitehall basement somewhere with a lot of large, sinister men, and told: ‘Congratulations on becoming a minister. We would like to wish you the very best of luck with your legislative programme. Just one thing, though: if you ever make a serious attempt to change the law on drugs, we will murder you and your families. Coffee?’

A point Narcomania hammers home time and again is that success under the current model is impossible. Daly and Sampson use the example of prisons. In prison the inmates’ behaviour is constantly monitored, and yet drugs are easily available: policing the trade on the outside is a fool’s game. The business attracts the most smart and inventive criminals, and they are always a step ahead. There is a smuggler’s pathway in every country on earth and, with twelve thousand miles of British coastline to police, the chance of a shipment being intercepted is laughable. Just two per cent of drug seizures are made by the UK Border Agency. The rest is down to what we call ‘community policing’. In my home city of Manchester the police carry out dawn raids on identified users and dealers, with a live Twitter feed and tame reporter in tow. This is fair enough: middle class liberals like me often forget the havoc that problem drug users and violent dealers bring to working class communities. But the idea that these raids represent a serious advance is fantasy.

Daly and Sampson talk to customers and suppliers all over the UK, and the results are fascinating. The pyramidical or hierarchical gang structure of The Wire does not apply in this country. Instead we have a picture out of utopian capitalist theory, with thousands of small innovators selling different kinds of product to different people for different reasons. Turf wars are rare, and there is absolutely no profile: drug dealers are students, professionals, hipsters, immigrants, intellectuals, eccentrics, and territorial psychopaths. The drug trade in the UK is not so much The Wire as Breaking Bad.

Breaking Bad introduces a gentle, bumbling, middle aged loser, Walter White, who after a cancer diagnosis begins to manufacture and sell crystal meth. The show is a kind of Faustian retelling: as a drug dealer Walter becomes rich and powerful, but loses his soul, and we watch his descent from hapless family man to terrifying gunslinger of the South Valley crime scene. The premise is farfetched – an executive told creator Vince Gilligan that his pitch constituted ‘the single worst idea for a television show that I have heard in my whole life’ – but it illustrates the evolution of criminality in a free world. Last year a college tutor in Burnage was locked up for twenty-one years. It turned out that apparently mild-mannered IT teacher Mohammed Sarwar was, in fact, a major cocaine wholesaler. The sentencing judge told Sarwar that ‘You qualified as a teacher, you could have led a lawful, decent life – you have done no such thing… Instead of putting your intelligence and resources to good and helpful use, you have put them to very unlawful purposes.’

We need to be realistic about the prospect of legalisation. There is no way that the gangsters will give up their market without a fight, and probably even under a liberal regime we would still see black market drugs undercutting straight prices. Also, some drugs are better than others. People can take coke and ecstasy every weekend and live long, productive lives. But who has a purely recreational relationship with crack, or crystal meth? We should not dismiss or downplay the very real dangers of some drugs: the mental health risks of cannabis, for instance, or the tranquilliser drug ketamine, which caused a spate of bladder problems in users, to the extent that waiting lists for surgery are through the roof. Legalisation will be difficult, but the status quo is impossible.

Oh, change will come. Even some American states have recently experimented with local legalisation of marujuana. God knows why we haven’t tried it up to now. My take is that so many public sector careers are riding on the drug war, that to surrender would mean the derailing of a very profitable gravy train.

Let’s finish on an anecdote. Last year I was at a crime prevention conference in a work related capacity. We munched on free food and listened to management whalesong from various council officers at the lectern. One speaker outlined a multi agency drug prevention strategy, rolling out all the rehabilitation and sentencing crap that we have been trying for years and doesn’t work. The speaker took a question from the floor:

You may want to plead the fifth amendment on this, but I was speaking to a London drug squad officer recently and I asked what, in his opinion, would resolve the huge drug-related crime problem in London.

He told me: ‘Legalisation of drugs.’

What do you think of that?

The speaker said: ‘I would prefer not to comment.’

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 30th, 2012.