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October 25, 2004

Drug Prohibition is not working: The case of Bloomsbury, London

Posted by John Adams

Bloomsbury in London is currently facing an upsurge of drug-related crime. Prof. John Adams argues that this is partly the consequence of local factors - the presence of a needle 'exchange' van in St. Giles and the concentration of hostels for the homeless in the area - and partly the consequence of 'successful' police operations in other areas. All such police operations achieve, argues Prof. Adams, is to displace the problems of drug crime from one area to another. The only long-term solution, argues Prof. Adams, is the end of drug prohibition.

I wrote my first essay on prohibition 50 years ago. This is my second. The first was for a school history project.

My grandfather was the American federal judge who heard Al Capone's final appeal in 1932. As a consequence I grew up as an enthusiast for gangster films, and with a proud proprietorial interest in the world's most notorious gangster. In defence of this interest, and to impress my friends with my connection with Al, I became a juvenile expert on prohibition.

I have lost the essay, but from memory it began by noting the connection between the passage of the Volstead Act establishing prohibition in 1920, and the rise of organised crime. And it might have concluded by noting that the Act, upon which Capone built his criminal empire, was repealed one year after he began serving his sentence for tax evasion. In between was probably a lot of colourful stuff about gangsters and my close connection to it all.

This essay, my second, has been inspired by a report produced by Transform entitled After the War on Drugs: Options for Control. It was launched at a meeting on 13 October in Portcullis House. The star speakers were Danny Kushlick, director of Transform, and two columnists, Simon Jenkins of The Times and Polly Toynbee of The Guardian – who agree on few subjects other than the pernicious futility of current drugs policy.

The revival of my interest in the subject has also been stimulated by the growth of the drug-related gun-knife culture, and by the fact that Bloomsbury, where I have worked for 35 years, has become one of the nation's hottest drugs markets. The growing number of American-style, gun-toting gangsters and their association with the drugs trade has parallels with the American experience with prohibition that are too close for comfort.

There appear to be three main reasons for the recent concentration of this problem in Bloomsbury. Its attractiveness to both dealers and buyers would appear to be related to:
• The 'successful' police operations in the vicinity of St Giles/Tottenham Court Road and Kings Cross displacing the problem into Bloomsbury, the area between them;
• A needle exchange van in St Giles which last year handed out 285,000 clean needles; and
• A concentration of hostels for the homeless in Bloomsbury accommodating about 500 people, 95% of whom are estimated to be problem drug users.

The hostels are an embarrassing advertisement for the failure of the present regime of 'treatment' for 'problematic' drug users. In a recent survey [see Health Impact Assessment of a Proposal to Establish a Fixed Site for Needle Exchange and Other Services in the West End], commissioned by the Drug Action Teams of Camden and Westminster Council and written by Erica Ison of Oxford University's Institute of Health Sciences, of 41 residents in one of these hostels it was found that:
• 93% (38/41) of respondents used heroin, 71% (29/41) on a daily basis;
• 85% (35/41) used crack/cocaine, 54% (22/41) of on a daily basis;
• 46% (19/41) of respondents had been prescribed methadone;
• 63% (26/41) of respondents mixed heroin and crack.
One observer close to the problem puts it this way: "Those on 'treatment' have methadone for breakfast, heroin for lunch, and crack for tea."

The needle exchange provides a clean way of injecting substances that can only be acquired from criminals. The majority of these problematic drug users are estimated to spend between £200 - £500 a week on these substances – virtually all of it acquired through aggressive begging or acquisitive crime. The mobile needle 'exchange' in St Giles last year handed out 80,000 more needles than it received back – leaving behind a significant public health problem.

Bloomsbury is an area dominated by a few large, mostly educational, institutions. It is currently mounting a vigorous resistance to the invasion of dealers and addicts. The heads of security of its institutions are liaising with each other, and the police, in an unprecedented fashion. More CCTVs are being installed, and the monitoring of them coordinated. The police are encouragingly active. But under the current state of the law, the most that we can do to deal with our problem, that has been displaced on to us from Kings Cross and St. Giles/Tottenham Court Road, is to displace it on to someone else. This strikes me as the worst sort of NIMBYism. Hence my revived interest, this time guilt-inspired, in the pernicious futility of prohibition, and my enthusiasm for the controlled-legalisation agenda being promoted by Transform.

The strongest challenge I have seen to the Transform agenda appeared in a letter in The Times (19 October, 2004 - see below) from David Raynes, a former senior customs officer. This letter had the perverse effect of strengthening my support for the argument that it attacked. It made two points: first, that in the 1960s when there was legalised heroin available to all addicts, there was still an illegal market and, second, that more than 20 per cent of the current UK tobacco market is in smuggled supplies. A reversion to the much lower levels of problematic drug use that existed in the 1960s, and a reduction of 80 per cent in the level of associated crime, would strike most students of the current drugs problem in Bloomsbury as an impressive achievement.

I conclude with a demonstration that the Government already has a credible policy for dealing with the harms caused by the prohibition of drugs, if only it knew it. Why this … …. but not this? (see box) is an embellishment of Kushlick's challenge to the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit issued at the launch of Transform's report. The price tag attached to alcohol-related harm, presented in the second paragraph, is retained for drugs. The numbers of people who are physically harmed by alcohol through illness or accident and violence, greatly exceed the numbers directly harmed by drugs, but the costs of drug-related crime, including theft and keeping large numbers of thieves in prison, hugely exceed the costs of criminality linked to alcohol. However both the monetary numbers for alcohol and drugs are wild guesstimates because most of the damage they do cannot be reduced to cash.

Kushlick's challenge contains the essence of the essay I wish I could claim I wrote 50 years ago. Its logic is well within the grasp of the average teenager. The latter-day Capones of the illicit drugs trade hope the challenge will be ducked. The repeal of prohibition drove the bootleggers out of the alcohol business – but into drugs, whose prohibition is replicating the problems of the first prohibition, but on a far larger scale. What I haven't been able to figure out over the last 50 years is how societies decide which voluntary risks to ban and which to permit, and why they tolerate the enormous costs of banning.

John Adams is emeritus professor of geography at University College London.

Why this ... but not this? Click on box to enlarge

Letter in The Times from David Raynes (19 October, 2004):

Sir, Danny Kushlik (Thunderer, October 12) is not the only person to think that 'legalising' currently illegal drugs will break the link between drugs and crime, but there is no logical basis for thinking so. Even those who take the most extreme position do not suggest complete availability, to anyone, at any age. So there would remain an illegal market for those too young to qualify or who choose not to register for the legal supply.

Unless government gives the substances away, illegal traders with no taxes or regulation can always undercut legitimate trade, and illegal trading in legal goods is considerably easier than illegal trading in illegal goods. During the 1960s, when we had the 'British system' of legalised heroin for all registered addicts, we had a parallel illegal market (fed from the legal market or smuggled).

More than 20 per cent of the current UK tobacco market is in smuggled and counterfeit supplies. World-wide, organised crime is rampant in trading tobacco and many other items, counterfeit and smuggled. I do not believe that criminals would give up supplying drugs were these to be legalised: legalisation of drugs would not take the guns out of circulation.

Yours sincerely,
DAVID RAYNES
(Assistant Chief Investigation Officer, HM Customs & Excise National Investigation Service, 1996-2000),
Pheon Management Services,
PO Box 2927, Radstock BA3 4PW.
October 12.


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Prof. Adams makes the point extremely well - drug prohibition can never solve the problems of drug abuse, only exacerbate them. Only when governments realise that drug prohibition is the problem - and the cause of vast amounts of crime and nuisance - will they be able to put together a sebsible drugs policy. Until then, as Prof. Adams point out, policing can only move the worst excesses of drug culture from one area to another.

Posted by: Jonathan Davids at October 26, 2004 03:08 PM
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'Why This... But Not This' hits the nail on the head. It is ridiculous that this government - and indeed every other government - believes it can control drug taking thorugh prohibition. Only when governments realise that drugs are a social ill that can best be managed through regulation, not prohibition, will be able to have a sensible drugs policy. Until then not only are gangsters boosted by the government's policy, the lives of people who have nothing to do with drugs are too often made a misery.

Posted by: Graeff at October 27, 2004 04:16 PM
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The primary reason that the prohibition by law of unauthorised dangerous drugs is not working, is the abysmal enforcement of the laws relating to the supply and abuse. The very same reason that prohibition of alcohol in the United States failed too - it was never enforced; on the contrary, the liquor was encouraged by the US city police forces who immediately dipped their noses into the Mafia trough and only busted the suppliers when it was at the behest of of rival Mob suppliers.
Moreover current enforcement of regulations in the UK relating to licensed establishments, where drug abuse is propagated and rife, is equally lax at best and in mosts cases non-existent. Those who suggest that the drugs laws are manisfestly not working, when in fact those laws are only being enforced sporadically in most areas and not at all in some, are deserving of the Basil Fawlty First Class Honours Degree in the bleeding obvious. Libertarian police chiefs have taken it upon themselves to instruct their street officers not to enforce the Dangerous Drugs Acts. Hence the exponential growth in drug trafficking. The scourge of drug abuse throughout the world has now become one of the greatest threats to civilisation. It is an evil that must not only be legislated against, but rigorously enforced. Those who suggest that the State takes over the supply of the supply of narcotics, hallucinogens, amphetamines etc. to 'rid the drugs trade of crimninals' are barmy. It is rather like suggesting that armed robbery should be taken over by the police to deprive criminals of their livelihood.
Families are subjected to agonising emotional pain and often physical assault when their loved ones become hooked on drugs. Those that take them are wilful and selfish criminals and should be punished like any other brand of criminal. They are not victims, their families are victims and wider society is seriously damaged by their criminality, not just because they commit crimes of theft and violence to obtain drugs, but because the very possession and supply is, per se, one of the most serious crimes. Self harm and resultant dependency is a social evil that can only be controlled by statute. As a young man I declined to join in the drug cult primarily because possession was illegal. I did not sell drugs for the same reason. I would suggest that there are millions of others who are not hooked on drugs for a similar reason: because they wish to obey the law. How the anti-prohibition lobby envisages the organisation of the trade were it to be made legal is an amusing concept. They obviously have not been properly apprised of what occurred in the sixties and seventies when quacks such as Petro, Swann, et al were allowed to prescribe heroin ad lib. How many more Dr Shipmans would there be, let alone amateur versions of dispensers of death to unloved elderly relatives, if the laws were relaxed?
I am not an emeritus Professor of Geography and would not therefore pontificate about spatial variations in human and physical phenomena on the Earth's surface. But I did police the streets of London in the 1950s - 1980s and worked in the NHS in the 1990s therefore know quite a lot about spaced-out humans on the surface of London: part of the unacceptable toxic detritus that must be dealt with. They should be in penetentiary confinement pour encourager les autres, not loose on the streets to impose the the results of their arrogant selfishness on their fellow citizens. Opprobrium should be heaped upon them, not pity and facilitation. As for the suppliers and producers, there is undoubtedly a special place in hell for them, but it should be remembered that they are only responding to a demand. Users conspire with them and are therefore equally culpable.
The constituency of the virulent lobby that espouses legalisation of drug supply should convince any sane person that it is a mad concept, let alone a man who is qualified to teach and guide young people about the increasingly hazardous world that we now inhabit. The neo-Marxist plotting for a new cultural hegemony will include any bunch of useful idiots who are prepared to undermine our institutional stability. Methinks the cod statistics and intellectualising of the Prof. cannot even begin to match the eminent logic of the sober, sane and experienced David Raynes. My money is on Raynes, but I fear that in the current climate of Gramscian group therapy the odds ar against both of us.

Posted by: Frank Pulley at October 29, 2004 02:58 AM
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What a lot of naοve rhetoric Mr Pulley. You talk of 'penetentiary confinement' - but you have to first arrest them for some offence or another and then convince the courts to send them to prison. The fact is that will not happen! The Drugs Act is out of date, drugs policy is NOT working, Treatment is NOT working and the people of this country are suffering the consequences. 'Some form of legalisation' is the ONLY way the government can take control of ths situation.

Posted by: Jim Murray at June 11, 2005 08:03 PM
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What a lot of naοve rhetoric Mr Pulley. You talk of 'penetentiary confinement' - but you have to first arrest them for some offence or another and then convince the courts to send them to prison. The fact is that will not happen! The Drugs Act is out of date, drugs policy is NOT working, Treatment is NOT working and the people of this country are suffering the consequences. 'Some form of legalisation' is the ONLY way the government can take control of ths situation.

Posted by: Jim Murray at October 14, 2005 11:02 AM
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How wonderful of you, Mr Pulley, to bring fire and brimstone rhetoric into the drug policy arguement. Such loaded language as "evil" and "special place in Hell" when arguing about drugs is quite silly.
A few things you failed to see among your holier-than-thou rant.
Firstly, you claim that drug laws are not enforced. Hmm, care to tell that to the hundreds and thousands of people now in jail for possession, or distribution of drugs? Because, if it really wasn't enforced, no one would be in jail for drugs.
Drug enforcement has become harsher and harsher as times passes (specifically in the good old USA) - with mandatory minimums for mere possession, and in some cases life imprisonment for certain amounts of certain drugs. There is no distinction here from the drug addict or the average Joe who works, pays taxes, raises a family and lives a normal life. Under drug policy laws, ANYONE who is caught with illegal drugs is branded a criminal, regardless of whether or not they were a drug king pin, or just someone who was smoking a joint.
Yes, many people do drugs and lead normal lives! To assume everyone who touches illegal drugs is instantly a fiend, an addict, an abuser who ruins everything they touch and is causing emotional grief is such an outdated belief. This is the stuff of the puritian hey day, where pleasure is immoral and sinful. If someone is doing drugs in their own home with no direct impact on the people around them, I fail to see how this is such a serious crime. When a crime has no victims, it really is not a crime at all. (And no, being an addict is not a crime - if it were, alcoholics would be serving jail time).
Now, what of the legal drug dealers (liquor stores, tobacconists, coffee shops)? Under your strange world view, all drug dealers are reserved a special place in hell. It's only fair then, that this extends to all drug dealers, both legal and illegal - because on both sides of the coin there is damage to the person using these drugs. Nevermind what the LAW says, because the law in this area is so hypocritical, that it boggles the mind. Do liquor stores deserve contempt when someone drinks and drives, drinks themselves to death, or dies from alcohol related diseases? Are they in any way directly responsible for what someone CHOSE to do? Do these people deserve to be in jail because the drugs they sell kill and harm many people? No, of course not. But lots of people fail to see that alcohol IS a drug, and alcohol causes far more harm than most other drugs.
Moving onto the touchy subject of addiction. No doubt addiction is horrible, and causes suffering to both the addict and their relations. But to outright say that the addict is a criminal and the true victims are their family is astounding. Does this apply to alcoholics? In fact, does this apply to every single addict to legal medicines (that were used for medical purposes, not as a means to get high), addicts to ANYTHING? Addiction isn't just limited to drugs - anything that can give someone pleasure can become addictive. Addictive people can do desparate things to make sure they keep on receiving this pleasure. Last I checked, jail was not a good method for "healing" addiction. It simply removes the problem out of society's eyes where we can pretend it doesn't exist. This is NOT a healthy way of dealing with problems. Giving people criminal records for any drug offence is one way of painting them into a corner.

So, we should just lock up every single illegal drug user on all these claims you have made? Even if the same problems exist for legal drugs, even if it means you have to jail billions of people around the world? They've been trying this method for the last 70 years and no, nothing has changed. People STILL do drugs, and always will do drugs. You cannot bury your head in the sand, and lock away everyone that doesn't subscribe to your views of which drug is acceptable. It won't work - never WILL work, and they should quit throwing money down the toilet. As a tax payer, nothing makes me sicker than this blantant waste of tax payer's money.

You may have been a police officer and supposendly seen the first hand effects of such "evils", so I refer you to www.leap.cc - Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. These are the very people that were once proud battlers of this "War" on Drugs - members of the DEA and many police officers in America. They too have seen the "evils", but they have realised the error of their ways.

Posted by: Brett Le Mouton at August 30, 2006 01:08 AM
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Brett Le Mouton well said i'd like to see frank pulleys reply to to them well reasoned points although i very much doubt he could reply with a valid argument because there simply is'nt one,roll on the day the goverment wake up an stop wrecking lives an stop the prohibition of drugs

Posted by: natasha at January 31, 2007 04:25 PM
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Frank Pulley is quite right - drug laws are enforced only selectively. Of course there are many in jail- for supply, mostly. The so called war on drugs is a war on supply only. Users do not get punished. A quick glance in any local or national paper tells us this time and time again. If they did, there would be less of them. What they do get is an army of state institutions ready to excuse their behaviour. Combine this with the fact that most heroin users are already habitual criminals prior to the first use of heroin, and a picture starts emerging. By treating users as not responsible for their (criminal) actions, the liberal commentors here are inadvertantly calling them sub-human. Robbing, burglary and drug use are choices. Bad choices, but made of free will- there is nothing compelling them to do this.

The pro-drug comments mention the nirvana and joy of a world where there is no drug prohibition. What evidence, or example, can you possibly show that the country would be a better place if we legalise drugs? Your argument seems to be based on that you do not object to drugs or their use, so any restriction on them is ridiculed.

Treating users as criminals is the answer, but your perception is that they already are. It is simply not true.

Posted by: John R at May 22, 2008 01:48 PM
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