Drugs and Politics

What was the reaction to this rather phenomenal statement, in which a serving police chief admitted that much of his force's work is pointless? As far as I can tell, almost nothing. A few newspapers followed up the story on their inside pages; a few mediocre talking heads took to the radio. Within a day, the entire thing sunk into the abyss to be forgotten.

This should hardly be surprising. News involves telling people something new, and that our drugs policy is failing doesn't qualify. This newspaper has been making the case for decriminalisation or legalisation for decades. So too have an extraordinary number of well-informed people. They include government drugs advisers, former Home Office ministers, parliamentary committees, and even, in 2005, an impressive ambitious young Conservative MP called David Cameron. For all of Mr Barton's commendable courage, he is hardly unique. In reality, it is almost impossible to find anyone who seriously thinks that Britain's drug policy is particularly effective.

And for good reason. Though things have improved recently, Britain has among the highest levels of drug usage in Europe. That applies to cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine, but also to hard drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin. For example, the National Treatment Agency, shortly before it was shut down in May, proudly boasted of the fact that the number of crack-cocaine and heroin addicts in Britain has fallen below 300,000 for the first time in its existence. In the Netherlands, where heroin is given away to addicts by the government free of charge, officials say that there are now fewer than 10,000, down from 25,000 in the early 2000s. If prohibition is working in Britain, it is doing so in a very strange way.

The Home Office doesn't even try to argue its case any more. Instead, it justifies its policy with an infinitely recyclable answer. "Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous. They destroy lives and blight communities." Yet its own advisers say that...