Why drug prohibition is bad for policing

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?

Thank you.


About tomclloyd

International Drug Policy Adviser and former UK Chief Constable
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13 Responses to Why drug prohibition is bad for policing

  1. Nicholas Mitchell says:

    I’ve been passionately against the prohibition of drugs for forty years. The prohibition of them has made a mess of our cities. To criminalise the poor and sick is a futile and expensive process. As a petty bourgeois householder I resent the expense of house insurance because of the fact that we encourage burglary by making drugs illegal.

    • Darryl Bickler says:

      That’s not what Tom is saying, drugs are not and cannot be illegal. Law regulates human action not objects, it’s the vital semantic point that prohibition relies on.

  2. Peter Reynolds says:

    Magnificent Tom. It was a privilege to be there to hear you deliver it.

    • Draz Ekiel says:

      That was a joy to read, It really was refreshing to see that good honest view point from someone in that position of society. People generally talk big about change then when they get in powerful positiions they fall in line and then tow it.

      Its been obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense that prohibition of anything doesnt work if there is a demand for it. I would have thought the alcohol prohibition era would have taught the worlds leaders of that many years ago. That and .the fact that many other nations have had very good outcomes from putting drugs under the health service rather than the criminal service, as this gentleman says, all prohibition does is teaches the public to fear the police.

      What an adult, or consenting adults do in their own home is of no business to anyone else as long and no one else is hurt by their actions (Other than themselves in the sense of smoking etc).
      All prohibition has done for the world is produce organisations and the people that run them such as Pablo Escobar and his cartel, who had so much money it was found rotting in warehouses..What does that say to the young poor of third world countries ? “I want to be rich and live in a palace like him and drive one of them cars”…Okay not all will think that way, but some will.

      The corruption that was involved in Pablo’s empire was extreme, he practically owned the country at that time, he had politicians, police, customs, etc all in his pocket, on his payrole..As the proffits are huge, the money involved is huge because demand is high and the price for getting caught is extremely high. With corruption of that level, how can the laws on drugs ever work ?? and in all honesty why should they ? Who has the right to tell you what to like, and what to do with your life, its YOURS.

      Then you have expose’s of the CIA and other clandestine organisations funding ops with the Heroin and Drug trade, undercover agents using substances and commign home wrecked for giving their life to their job and their countries insane policy.
      Can you really blame some people for thinking that the governemnt must make money off of drugs being illegal when they refuse to look at science backed facts, logic and reason which show that they are wrong. (Example:. David Nutt, Fired for tellign the truth)

      Legalise and TAX, the same as alcohol.

      One last thing to mention is regarding the whole ‘drug driving’, many drive legally on heroin everyday, from prescription heroin and even more on morphine, as for cannabis millions drive with it in their bloodstream. and here is the point that needs to be addressed: The difference between driving with it in your bloodstream and Driving while under the influence in such a way as to make you a danger. Many drugs stay in your body for up to a month, that doesnt mean you are high for a month. That is one area that would need looking at properly and un biased.

      Sorry for the long post,
      Thanks again for this, its awesome..

      • Darryl Bickler says:

        Spot on until you fell into the ‘illegal drugs’ trap – they don’t exist, no such expression exists in law for good reason.

  3. Mike Parent says:

    We’d all be better off if the police focused on crimes that have actual victims!

    Does anyone honestly believe that wasting $20 Billion and arresting 3/4 Million Americans annually for choosing a substance scientifically proven to be safer than what the govt allows, is a sound policy?

  4. Max Wood says:

    Thank you for these remarks! The war on cannabis disguised as a war on drugs does much harm maximisation but especially everyone should read the TokePure section of the Clear-UK website to understand the worst harm: children are diverted by the fear of arrest and persecution for trying cannabis, and by the high black market price, into the worst drug addiction of all, nicotine $igarettes, resulting in 140,000 deaths a year in UK and 6,000,000 a year worldwide.

    Fear of being caught in possession of a vaporiser or single-toke utensil results in popularity of EASIER-TO-HIDE “Joints” which in Europe commonly contain a mixture of cannabis and addictive tobacco. This has been described by the Australian Department of Health as a “Trojan Horse” luring children into nicotine addiction. Governments are complicit because they are depending upon $igarette TAXES to support popular programs and a balanced budget, and also because politicians receive “dark money” for their re-election campaigns from $igarette company sources.

    I hope everyone will take the following to heart: whether it contains tobacco or not, to children whose parents have followed advice to keep them ignorant about cannabis every Joint and every picture of a Joint is a $igarette advertisement. Not surprisingly, in these days of increased controversy over cannabis and floods of articles on the subject in the tabloid press, a high percentage of the articles are headed by a picture of a Joint, or of a Joint being rolled, or of someone smoking a Joint. To a child seeing Mom or Dad reading such an article it amounts to a parental endorsement of the obsolete abusive $moking method, leading to danger of addiction down the road. Cannabis legalisation can help bring about true REGULATION (a) of dosage– 25 mg per serving instead of 500, and (b) product purity especially freedom from nicotine.

    • Darryl Bickler says:

      No that’s falling into the trap. Forget about spouting off about cannabis legalisation – it’s meaningless, as Tom said, this is about people, it’s NOT A WAR ON CANNABIS!

  5. Dessi C-h says:

    Asprin derived from the willow, opium and heroin derived from poppys…..maybe I am wrong, but strong painkilling medication came from the earth. Cannabis is derived from a plant..how come those who say they believe in a God who provided these painkillers in plant form believe He is wrong and they are right?

  6. Darryl Bickler says:

    I’d be happy to hear that and nothing to object to, in fact it sets up my own position very well, explaining what this objectification of the person means in law.

  7. Pingback: UK: Why drug prohibition is bad for policing | Coventry & Warwickshire Cannabis Community

  8. Drug prohibition is absolutely absurd.

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