READING THE Daily Mirror’s front page article on New Labour’s drugs policy, “We Are Losing The War On Drugs”, on Monday made my blood boil.
I live in the Muirhouse Pilton area of Edinburgh. It’s an area made famous by Irvine Welsh in the book and film Trainspotting.
The number of drug users is high, as is the number of drug-related deaths. According to those working with users in the area, one medical practice alone saw 153 deaths between 1996 and 2001—110 men and 43 women—out of just 667 registered drug addicts.
Across the whole of Edinburgh there were 40 recorded drug-related deaths in 2003 alone.
Now Tony Blair plans to launch a “war on drugs”. The Drugs Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday will see the introduction of compulsory blood tests for many people who are arrested.
It will no longer be necessary to be found in possession of drugs to be prosecuted. Anyone found with illegal substances in their bloodstream will face prosecution.
The bill is being pushed as a way of reducing drug-related crime and a central plank of New Labour’s clampdown on anti-social behaviour.
But these draconian measures will do nothing to solve the problems of drug use, or of the crimes committed by drug addicts.
And the prime minister himself knows his “war on drugs” will fail to offer any real solutions.
Secret reports and advice from the prime minister’s strategy unit show that the bill will have “no impact” at all on drug-related crime.
The strategy unit’s original report had to be “sexed up” by Lord Birt—one of Tony Blair’s “blue skies thinkers”—to make it tougher.
But even this report called for controlled supplies of heroin for addicts to help rehabilitation.
Blair personally intervened to insist on a tougher policy and to remove the idea of prescribing heroin to users, even though many experts say this is the only way to tackle the drug problem.
Evidence also shows that high profile crackdowns on street trading in drugs simply means that prices for the drugs rocket. This in turn means that addicts are driven to commit more crime to sustain their habit.
Not only will the “war on drugs” not achieve its goals, but it is likely to be a very expensive failure.
It is modelled on the “war on drugs” first dreamt up by disgraced US president Richard Nixon in 1972. It was to be modelled on the tactics the US military used against the Vietamese guerrillas during its disastrous war on that country.
The policy was continued and developed by later US governments. The costs of the programme spiralled from $300 million in 1980 to $6.6 billion in 1997.
New Labour is now going against its own advisers for purely ideological reasons.
It came to power in 1997 and immediately put the boot into single parents.
Since then it has attacked a number of scapegoats—from asylum seekers to the so called “Ned culture” or “yob culture”.
As the election looms Blair will move further to the right—pushing a law and order agenda to try to out-Tory the Tories.
But dealing properly with drugs means treating it as a health issue rather than a law and order issue. The starting point would be to stop the criminalisation of drug users.
A poll carried out for the Mirror showed that 95 percent of people wanted to see drug users treated differently from the way they are treated now, with prosecution and only sporadic treatment.
While 15 percent wanted tougher sentences for drug users, 40 percent wanted to see more treatment and some legalisation of drugs. Two thirds would like to see users receive “government-regulated supplies”.
But New Labour is cutting back on the very youth services and drug services that could help people to deal with drug-related problems.
The second thing is to address the reasons why people use drugs. The people in my area of Edinburgh are not taking drugs to reach a state of higher awareness.
They are not taking recreational drugs for a good time at weekends.
They are taking drugs to kill their pain and blank out their lives. They use drugs like heroin, methadone and crack.
The money spent on cracking down on drugs—£1 billion last year and likely to increase—would go a long way towards tacking the issues that lead people to take these drugs.
But instead of facing up to these problems New Labour would rather keep sticking the boot in.