This is the text of the talk I gave at the Home Affairs Select Committee Drugs Policy Seminar in Cambridge, 12 March 2015.
“Why drug prohibition is bad for policing”
Thank you for the invitation to participate today. Let me make it clear from the outset that I believe that our current policy of drug prohibition is a hugely costly, counter-productive and harmful failure.
I have not come to that conclusion lightly and not without considerable practical experience and through learning from others during 30 years policing in London and Cambridgeshire and ten years since then of engaging with politicians, law enforcement officials, NGOs, social workers, people who consume drugs, people who sell drugs and victims of crime of all types from all over the world.
There is a consistent and compelling feature that runs through what I have seen and heard: and it is that we are not fighting a war on drugs, we are fighting a war on people. What has happened, as identified as one of the five unintended harmful consequences of prohibition by the previous Executive Director of UNODC, is that human beings have suffered all over the world by, for example, losing their livelihoods as peasant farmers, losing their liberty and lives as drug takers and dealers, and being subjected to humiliation, degradation, ostracism and criminalisation.
And who is it who wages this war on people? The police. That is a key reason why I believe we must change our approach. Our police should not be waging a war on people, here or anywhere in the world.
Charging police with the duty to enforce drug prohibition alienates a huge number of people, thereby damaging the legitimacy of policing, compromises the role of the police by causing more harm than good.
It is simple economics to know that banning something for which there is a demand raises its price; in the case of drugs massively. So what we’ve done is hand a hugely profitably trade to criminals who use their vast wealth to ensure they will always triumph over law enforcement, as we have seen. The consequences for police? Dealing with the violence, shootings and murders committed by feuding gangs, and the huge increases in crime as drug takers burgle and rob to fund their drug consumption.
Prohibition also degrades the capacity of police to prevent and detect crime, particularly serious and organised crime.
I joined the police service to help people and catch criminals, to serve and protect if you like. But how does prosecuting someone, desperately trying to blot out the trauma of childhood physical, emotional, sexual abuse with heroin, either serve or protect them? They’d get support if they were using alcohol, for example.
How many 10 year-olds decide that their life’s ambition is to become a crack and heroin addict by the time they’re 25? None.
Something has gone badly wrong in their lives and they have made bad, but understandable, choices in trying to cope. How can it be right for the police to make their lives even worse by criminalising them and forcing them into riskier, more harmful behaviour? We should support, not punish.
And what sense does it make to kick down the door of a person taking cannabis as the only effective treatment for their MS, for example, to take away their medicine, a few plants, and prosecute them. What sense does it make to hold the threat of criminalisation over millions for enjoying cannabis, a plant that is many times safer than alcohol? It’s a world that’s turned upside down because of a misguided focus on a futile attempt to control access to the inanimate objects called drugs instead of on the supporting the rights, needs and frailties of human beings and concentrating on improving their lives. Support, don’t punish.
Let me put it this way; if you have got a problem with drugs the last thing you need is to be arrested…and if you haven’t got a problem with drugs the last thing you need is to be arrested.
You see, the mistake we have made is to focus on drugs rather than on people. So in our headlong rush to try to eliminate drugs we have ridden roughshod over the lives of people, all over the world.
The really sad thing is that all the suffering inflicted by law enforcement on the vulnerable, weak and poor has been in vain. The stated aims of drug prohibition, reduced production and supply of drugs, have not been met, In fact both have increased substantially as have the associated harms – not just from drug consumption but mainly from the unintended harmful consequences of prohibition.
The recent Home Office report, thank you Norman Baker MP, showed what many already knew; that law enforcement is largely irrelevant to the level of drug use. Theresa May admitted as much when questioned by this committee a couple of years ago. She didn’t know of any evidence that supported the effectiveness of law enforcement but she “felt” that it did work. How can that be a rational basis on which to deploy massive police resources that could be so much more effectively directed at preventing real criminality?
So, even if some may not be convinced by those of my arguments based on compassion and human rights, at least stop and think why, at a time when police resources are under huge pressure, billions continue to be spent on a policy that doesn’t work? Be pragmatic, if not compassionate.
Prohibition is the worst of all possible worlds, so we must change, but I do not propose a perfect solution, there isn’t one; just one that is substantially better.
My solution? Control of access, currently absent with criminals in charge, to reduce availability to young people, control of quality to reduce avoidable death and disease and honest education unfettered by hyperbole and the need to function within the illogicality and hypocrisy of prohibition. In other words introduce a graduated regulation of all drugs, just like food and drink and other potentially harmful substances, by the government.
And, while we’re waiting for that to happen, the police should immediately change their objectives from arrest and seizure of drugs to supporting harm reduction.
This is a complex issue and I cannot cover everything now, so let me end by asking you this, and this may be the most compelling argument yet: who would dare justify the massive waste of public resources endorsed by successive governments on drug law enforcement to the formidable Margaret Hodge?