T HE "war on drugs" policy pursued virulently in America and criticised as self-defeating by George Soros has been followed closely by British policy makers. Indeed, some commentators argue that its central tenet - that drug use should be stamped out by criminalising it - has been enthusiastically imported from the US into this country.
Both Labour and the Conservatives are adamant that drugs remain illegal and that a campaign against the drug barons and pushers is kept up. Yet an increasing number of people at the sharp end of drug use, including the police, are coming to the conclusion that this approach will not and cannot work.
The Government’s anti-drug campaign has mainly been attempting to stop people trying drugs in the first place. But this approach appears to have failed - a recent survey estimated that by the age of 16 about 50 per cent of people had tried or were regular recreational drug users.
Lifeline, a Manchester-based drug advice service, points out that the Government’s position has a central flaw - that youngsters are already taking drugs and there is an urgent need for a safety net to be provided for them. This could be in the form of counselling and proper information on taking drugs.
Figures on police arrests and cautions suggest that the authorities have begun to take a more pragmatic approach to recreational drug use- cautions are on the up, while prosecutions are failing. Police now tend to charge only those who appear to be in possession in order to sell. For many, though, this softly-softly approach is not enough. Legalisation of drugs, such commentators believe, is the only way to stop use spiralling out of control.
Dr John Marks, a practicing consultant psychiatrist at the Hulton General Hospital in Liverpool and chairman of the Drug Policy Review Group, believes the danger of criminalisation is that to afford black market prices addicts buy more than they need, adulterate and sell the extra to finance their own habits.
Some senior police officers have begun to speak out against the drug war.
Commander Grieve from the National Criminal Intelligence Service recently said that "there are lots of myths about drugs, one being the idea of the evil pusher at the school gates’. The truth of the matter is that the most likely supplier to your youngster is his best mate from school or even an older sibling. So if you wish to ‘declare war on the dealers’ make no mistake, you are declaring a civil war."
The alternative, the reformers suggest, is to control the use of drugs, and hence their misuse. Drugs would be sold only through specially licensed pharmacists, taxed to defray the costs of any addiction, and restricted to adults and to a maximum purchase per day by any particular individual.
And if we don’t change our ways? The most terrifying vision of the future comes from Colombia, where Senator Gomez Hurtado, a high court judge, said recently: "Forget about drug deaths and acquisitive crime, about addiction and Aids; all this pales into insignificance before the prospect facing the liberal societies of the West, like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car."
The income of the drug barons, he pointed out, is $254 billion - more than the American defence budget. With this financial power the barons could suborn the institutions of any state: "We are threatened with a return to the Dark Ages of rule by the gang. Current policies promote that end."