The good news about the Drug War is that the police know it can't be won. The bad news is that the politicians, judging by their public pronouncements at least, still seem to think it can. There are times when I think it's important to question some of the assumptions made about policing; but when the police have the good sense to agree with me it's only proper to acknowledge the excellent work they're doing. So huzzahs for the UK Drug Policy Commission whose latest report the Times summarises thus:
Police should switch their focus away from arresting drug dealers and concentrate on managing the harm they cause, according to an influential report.
The UK Drug Policy Commission says new dealers take the place of those arrested and often bring new problems such as violent turf wars. The report calls for the authorities to admit that if they cannot eradicate drug markets they should reduce the damage drugs inflict on local communities.
It said the police and other agencies should prioritise the most harmful characteristics of drug markets and focus on addressing them. The report suggests the authorities should focus on cracking down on particularly harmful behaviours linked to drugs including gun violence, sexual exploitation and the use of children and as lookouts or couriers.
“Levels of enforcement activity appear to bear no direct relationship to levels of drug use or availability,” the report said. “Traditionally, drug enforcement efforts have focused on arrests and seizures, with the aim of reducing supply but drug markets are large, resilient, and quick to adapt.”
It suggested “seeking to displace a market to another area, where it will have less impact”.
If you think you've seen this on TV it's because you have. We're in Hamsterdam and Bunny Colvin is our leader. Well, sort of. It's also important to appreciate that this isn't a question of bookish, academic police types, nor even the attitude of big city cops. Here in the Scottish Borders we have a new Chief Superintendent commanding the local division of Lothian & Borders constabulary. This week he told the Southern Reporter that “No amount of high-profile policing will solve today’s drug problem" and that the best the police can to is "keep it at bay".
That seems like commonsense to me. But no, the politicians repeat the tired old lines that the War on Drugs can be won by "cracking down" and "taking tough measures" that "send the right message" and all the other weary cliches we've heard for decades.
Now I'd probably go rather further than the UKDPC since, unlike the UKDPC, I really would be content if drugs were legalised. But since that happy day seems some way off, we must make do with what we have. And at the moment, that means taking the kind of more sensible, even humane, approach advocated by the UKDPC. There's a long way to go yet, but an approach that doesn't increase the damage done by the Drug War is surely better than persisting in policies which have, manifestly, failed and, for that matter, been of questionable ethical or philosophical merit.