OPINION - Tom Newton Dunn: Boris Johnson talks tough but his Drugs Strategy is strangely progressive

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·5-min read
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  • Richard Nixon
    Richard Nixon
    37th President of the United States of America (1913−1994)
 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

It was the day the President met The King. In December 1970, a substance-riddled Elvis Presley turned up at the White House unannounced. He said he was there to help fight the modern day scourge of narcotics.

Shortly afterwards, emboldened by the support of the biggest celebrity on the planet, Richard Nixon became the first US leader to declare war on drugs. Nixon’s war failed, as has every other one declared by an American president since.

The same goes for the multiple wars on drugs declared by various British governments in the 51 years since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Today’s figures are truly grim. There were 4,561 deaths from drug poisoning in England and Wales last year and 1,339 in Scotland. The number of heroin and crack addicts now stands at more than 300,000 in England alone, and drugs-related crime cost the nation almost £20 billion last year. All of these are record highs.

So why should Boris Johnson’s new 10-year Drugs Strategy, unveiled on Monday with a loud flourish of cops kicking in doors as the PM looked sternly on, go any other way than embarrassing failure?

Well here’s the thing. It just might work, or a good chunk of it anyway. The 62-page strategy is in two parts: doing more to find and rehabilitate addicts, and cracking down on users and dealers.

You wouldn’t think it from the “get tough” headlines that No 10 sought, but the lion’s share of the strategy’s new money is earmarked for the former. Some £780 million is for new approaches to treatment, while £300 million is for crime fighting.

This has been very warmly welcomed by campaigners, doctors and Dame Carol Black, who authored an independent review on the drugs epidemic whose key recommendations have now been adopted by the Government. Since the majority of acquisitive crime is carried out by those 300,000 addicts, curing them of their afflictions and getting them a home and regular work will go a long way to reducing drugs-related law breaking.

Ministers seemed happy this week to underplay the philosophical shift that the huge investment in rehab recognises: addiction is a health problem that needs a health solution, not a criminal one that needs a criminal solution. In practice that means court orders to refer addicts who fall foul of the law to treatment, not to prison.

What of the second element of the strategy, the crime fighting? The PM’s solution here is simply to get tougher on recreational users, dealers and county lines supply chains. The past half century tells us that this stands less chance of success.

“Get tough” clampdowns ignore a cast-iron rule of economics: as long as there is demand, there will always be supply. And as long as drug consumption remains illegal, there will be crime to fund it and vast profits for those supplying. The prohibition of something that people want has always failed, from alcohol in Chicago in the 1920s to Ecstasy pills in Cambridge in the 2020s.

Now this isn’t to say that legalisation, or the stepping stone to it, decriminalising possession, is necessarily the answer. The pros and cons of both are passionately argued. But might it be?

What we do know is that decriminalising drug use and regulating it would kill drugs crime stone dead. So could there be a system of regulated drug use, tailor-made to Britain’s unique culture and sensitivities?

Here the Drugs Strategy is also promising. A little noticed but intriguing part of it — Chapter 4, page 47 — is the commitment to “develop a world-leading evidence base” of successful drugs policies around the world. Everything will be looked at, from the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use in 18 US states to decriminalising the use of all drugs in Portugal.

No leader of our two main political parties has ever dared to suggest decriminalisation or regulation, because they think voters don’t want to hear it.

But voters do want a reduction in drugs crime and a reduction in drug use. So those twin guides must be the benchmarks for all government policy on drugs; what works, not what politicians think voters might think works. That’s the only way we’ll bring this 50-year war to an end.

In other news...

It’s time for us to accept the Covid jabs social contract

I got my Covid-19 booster jab yesterday, at Guy’s Hospital in London Bridge. They gave me a badge that says so, and I wear it on my lapel in the hope that it encourages fellow Londoners.

Guy’s is one of the UK’s biggest vaccination centres, jabbing 1,000 a day. An incredibly impressive operation. Only 50 of those are first doses now, my nurse told me.

Some 88.9 per cent of us aged 12 and over have been jabbed. So one in 10 — roughly five million — still haven’t, despite all the cajoling by ministers and medics. Our liberty will very soon depend on those five million people. Some sort of Omicron wave is coming, which means more restrictions for all of us unless more of them get jabbed.

You can’t get a drink in a New York bar unless you’re vaccinated. Nor lunch in any Irish pub, or dinner in France or Italy. In Germany and Austria you’re barely allowed out. It’s the Covid social contract: protect society, and you can enjoy society’s benefits.

Is our government going to be the last one to cotton on?

Our smaller charities need this new voice

We Brits are a generous bunch. We give £10 billion to charity every year.

What I didn’t know is 85 per cent of it goes to just four per cent of the nation’s charities. Usually, they are the biggest ones with the loudest voices. Tens of thousands of smaller charities, who do vital community work, are in a struggle for survival. So the Centre for Social Justice Foundation, an off-shoot of the think tank, is a brilliant idea. Launched this week, it showcases the little guys’ work and puts them in touch with the big money. Bravo.

Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and Chief Political Commentator on Times Radio

What do you think about Boris Johnson’s new Drugs Strategy? Let us know in the comments below.

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