I was a criminal lawyer for over 40 years – indeed I still am, now pushing my last couple of cases through the Criminal Cases Review Commission. My big takeaway from such a long career? Easy, and here it is in one sentence. Our criminal justice approach to drugs is a national catastrophe.
It is not preventing drug use. It works mainly to maintain prices at a level where criminal entrepreneurs make super-profits. And these super-profits are now corrupting governments around the world as well as the global finance system.
Drugs pervade the whole of our country, from city tower blocks to seaside resorts. Drug supply is a massive industry, which is in many areas increasingly vicious and now extends to children in their early teens. Turf wars have led to a spree of shootings and knife crime that threatens the safety of our city streets.
The cost of policing this dreadful scenario is some £5 billion a year in direct costs. Drug related crime costs society another £11 billion a year. The quality, composition and strength of illegal drugs is completely unpredictable, causing thousands of needless deaths each year. The furtive circumstances in which some drugs taken, together with shared needles, cause hundreds more deaths. This is a high price to pay for a policy which delivers such terrible outcomes.
Politicians need to face the reality of the drug trade. They can do better than this. After all, we have persuaded a huge number of people to give up one incredibly harmful practice (smoking tobacco) over the last 20 years by regulating and taxing it heavily, banning all forms of marketing and pumping out health messages.
Why don’t we do the same with all drugs? To regulate and tax drugs and ban all forms of marketing we need to make them legal and ensure a safe source under carefully controlled conditions. Then we can start working seriously on the public health side of drugs. Countries around the world are doing this, from Canada to Iran. Every study so far shows this approach works. Why should we be behind the curve?
Imagine how much good would be done if the money spent on investigating and prosecuting drug cases went into underfunded areas of criminal enforcement like child abuse, people trafficking and fraud. The world would be a massively better and safer place. Not to mention the benefit of new tax revenues and the burden of crime lifted from citizens and businesses.
No-one knows this better than criminal defence lawyers. We see the young people who lose the chance of a loving home because their parents are stigmatised and discriminated against, in prison, or even dead. Many of them are drawn into the drug economy and end up themselves killed or in prison or deprived of an education. The deprivation caused both by drug crime and drug law enforcement is shocking. I defy anyone who spends a night alongside a duty solicitor not to come away convinced of the need for regulation.
The consequences of UK drug law are so heartbreaking that when I retired I looked for an organisation where I could help get the law changed. I found and joined the drug policy foundation, Transform, www.transformdrugs.org which is working to bring about a comprehensive scheme of regulation. It truly is a vision of a world transformed.