It does not take long to find the numbers: the Home Office has put “the social and economic cost” of workplace use of currently illegal drugs at “more than 20 billion a year”. The extra costs incurred by the police, customs, court system and prison service are not mentioned – but I would not be surprised to hear that they are of a magnitude more.
Some of these costs would reduce if the Portuguese approach – of decriminalising drug use – were adopted. But the involvement of organised criminality would continue. And it is this presence that is responsible not only for the violence of turf wars, but also the adulteration of drugs – the padding out with a variety of additives (some of them poisonous) to make a given initial amount go further. It is, substantially, these additives that turn drugs such as heroin from relatively benign tools for pain relief into the terror that “screws you up”.
This was pointed up some time ago in a suitably thorough article by Nick Davies – the same man who brought us Flat Earth News – which appeared in the Guardian back in June 2001. This was associated with the C4 documentary Drugs – The Phoney War. And the stand out facts are grim: in 1968, there were perhaps 500 heroin addicts in the UK. At the millennium, that had become half a million. The spread of Hepatitis C by the time Davis did his research had reached 300,000 in the UK alone. By June 2000, around a thousand users had died of Aids related illnesses which could be traced back to the use of dirty needles.
Yet the approach of politicians, which Davis covered in his second article, has been to plough on with criminal sanction and enforced treatment. As the article’s headline says, “Demonising druggies wins votes. That’s all that counts”. So the criminality keeps hold of production and distribution, debasing the original drugs with a cocktail of adulterants, and the misery continues. And all the time the power of those criminals at the top of this unsavoury pyramid grows: one estimate in 1993 put the annual income of the top drug barons at 500 billion dollars. That’s enough to buy a lot of lobbyists, and influence many more politicians.
To merely decriminalise drug use would, as I’ve already described, be a big ask. To then wrest the production and distribution of drugs from organised criminality would then be a task of yet greater magnitude. After all, they’ve been doing it for three quarters of a century, they’ve got money, they’ve got power, and they’ve got influence. No political party in the UK will seriously challenge the status quo any time soon. After all, they’re in the same state of denial as all those addicts.
And there’ll be no treatment for that until they admit the problem.