The police and hard drugs: the Cleveland report
Published by The Guardian – Monday 21 April, 2003
Copyright: The Guardian
The Association of Chief Police Officers will announce next month a new position on hard drugs, advocating the legalisation of heroin. This shift of policy builds on controversial research published two years ago by Cleveland police in the north east of England which was used by Chief Constable Barry Shaw, who remains in charge of the force, to propose a new approach to the “war on drugs”. While the proposals were not adopted by Cleveland at that time, they are now set to become the focus of a national debate in the wake of the rapid liberalisation of the debate on policing drugs.
What the Cleveland report says
These are extracts from the Cleveland report. The full report is available from the pro-reform pressure group Transform and can be read here.
Recreational drugs have been used by humans across the world for thousands of years. Current UK policy (proscription) dates from the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and is clearly based upon American experience. The UK government is also signatory to international treaties rendering the drugs trade illegal worldwide.
“It can be argued that there is no logic to the current pattern of illegality. Some drugs (alcohol, nicotine) are freely available despite very clear evidence of their harmful effects. Others such as cannabis are proscribed with their possession being subject to severe penalties, despite the fact that they are perceived by many medical scientists to be less harmful than alcohol. The illogicality of this approach (which seems to be based upon no more than historical accident) leads many young people in particular to level charges of hypocrisy at `the establishment’. This is a very difficult argument to counter”.
The failure of prohibition
“There is overwhelming evidence to show that the prohibition based policy in place in this country since 1971 has not been effective in controlling the availability or use of proscribed drugs. If there is indeed a `war of drugs’ it is not being won; drugs are demonstrably cheaper and more readily available than ever before. It seems that the laws of supply and demand are operating in a textbook fashion …
Members may wish to ask themselves whether we have learned the lessons from alcohol prohibition in the United States in the 1920’s, from Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign in India in the 1940’s and from the Poll Tax here in the UK in the 1980’s. If a sufficiently large (and apparently growing) part of the population chooses to ignore the law for whatever reason, then that law becomes unenforceable. A modern western democracy, based on policing by consent and the rule of law may find itself powerless to prevent illegal activity – in this case the importation and use of controlled drugs.”
Drugs and crime
The report considers the links between drugs and crime, arguing that “as a result of this illegality their market price is very high indeed, as the suppliers carry significant risks”.
The report quotes government assessments that the illegal drugs trade is worth £400 billion – 8% of all international trade – and is as big as the global trade in oil and gas. “The profits to be made are truly enormous – the pharmaceutical price of heroin is less than £1 per gram, but the street price in the UK is about 80 times higher. At these sort of profit margins it is well worth while buying a gun to protect your investment – and a third of all firearms incidents committed in Cleveland in 1998 are demonstrably drug related. Organised crime gangs are every bit as difficult to stamp out as are terrorists, once they have taken root, and provided the market continues to exist. The best example of this is the mafia in the USA whose development was given an enormous boost by alcohol prohibition.”
Commission of crime
“Many prohibited drugs are very strongly addictive, as well as expensive. A serious heroin user needs to find say £50 per day to fund their habit, in cash. This sort of money is difficult to obtain by legitimate means, so they have to turn to crime. Nationally about 30% of persons arrested by the police are dependant upon one or more illegal drug, and about 32% of the proceeds of crime seem to be geared to the purchase of heroin, cocaine or crack. …. The main crimes committed are shoplifting (by far the greatest), selling drugs and burglary. One research project has shown that 1,000 addicts committed 70,000 criminal acts during a 90-day period prior to their intake for treatment. It is clear that the very high cost of drugs is caused by their illegality, and that these high costs are causing large amounts of acquisitive crime. Is this acceptable?”
“Most drug users seem not to commit significant amounts of crime – their only offence is to choose to use a drug which is technically illegal. The best example of this is cannabis (the UK has the highest rate of cannabis use in Europe, higher even than in the Netherlands which has a tolerance policy). The illogical pattern of proscription causes people who abuse alcohol or nicotine to be treated purely as victims, whereas those who abuse cannabis become criminals. If caught they face a criminal record and social exclusion.
“There is only one serious alternative to the proscription policy – the legalisation and regulation of some or all drugs. Any debate about such an approach must raise and then deal with fundamental questions about the societal effects. What would be the health and social impact? Would the use of drugs increase or decline? What would be the impact on crime? The potential consequences are very significant indeed – are they to be countenanced?”
The report argues that “since legalisation and regulation for the currently proscribed drugs has never been tried properly anywhere in the world there is little hard evidence available”, although lessons can be learnt from the regulation of legal drugs like nicotine and alcohol, and from liberalistation
“Some European cities (notably Geneva and London) have experimented with radical solutions by issuing heroin under prescription. A number of studies have now demonstrated crime reductions as a result (in some cases startling ones). Heroin users previously caught up in a cycle of drugs and crime started to lead reasonably stable lives, some holding down jobs and a `normal’ family life. These experiments (whose results have not always been clear cut) have not been continued largely because they were to the detriment of maintained methadone programmes which are the currently `approved’ method of reducing addiction.
There is also contrary evidence. Defacto legalisation is in place in parts of South America where the drugs trade is out of any control. The effects are quite frightening. However this is without any effective regulation, and without the health improvement and harm reduction programmes which seem to have been so successful in the UK (even in the limited fashion seen to date).
· A number of tentative conclusions can be drawn from the available evidence:
· Attempts to restrict availability of illegal drugs have failed so far, everywhere
· There is little or no evidence that they can ever work within acceptable means in a democratic society
· Demand for drugs seems still to be growing, locally and nationally. The market seems to be some way from saturation
· There is little evidence that conventional conviction and punishment has any effect on offending levels
· There is, however, growing evidence that treatment and rehabilitation programmes can have a significant impact on drug misuse and offending
· There is some evidence that social attitudes can be changed over time, by design. The best example available to date is drink-driving, but success has taken a generation to achieve
· If prohibition does not work, then either the consequences of this have to be accepted, or an alternative approach must be found
· The most obvious alternative approach is the legalisation and subsequent regulation of some or all drugs
· There are really serious social implications to such an approach which have never been thought through in a comprehensive manner, anywhere