The only people who would want drugs legalized, you might think, are free-market radicals, junkies or both. On June 8th-9th, senior police officers held their annual conference on drugs. Some independent thinkers such as Raymond Kendall, the head of Interpol, the international police organization, called for drug use to be brought within the law. But no chief constables dared voice public support for legalization. John Major ruled it out on a visit to Cleveland, because people would “move from soft drugs to hard drugs.” And, when Michael Howard, the home secretary, addressed the conference, he backed the prime minister. Only months before, he had increased the maximum fine for possession of cannabis five-fold.
But reality differs from rhetoric. Recent years have seen a creeping de facto legalization of drugs. This softening has been caused partly by evidence that drug enforcement is failing. The police and customs have seized ever-larger quantities of drugs (the number of seizures rose by 237% between 1982 and 1992). Officers have caught more dealers (arrests are up by 179% over the same period). Yet drug use appears to have increased too. In a survey of 10,000 people in 1992, 28% of 16-29- year-olds said they had tried illegal drugs, roughly twice as many as in 1982. Even most policemen admit that rising arrests and seizures reflect the growth of drug use, rather than the success of enforcement.
Most drug users, of course, are neither addicts nor even miserable. Around half of drug users say they have taken only cannabis. Recent Home Office research shows that cannabis smokers are concentrated among professional and managerial classes. Two new magazines for dope aficionados–Hemp Nation and Bush Telegraph–have appeared. Even the Sunday Telegraph, a strictly middle-class paper, recently published an article on the etiquette of dinner-party dope-smoking.
Rave culture has also boosted the use of recreational drugs. According to a Gallup survey among 15-24-year-olds, rave drugs have taken root quickest of all. The proportion who had taken LSD rose from 2% to 10% between 1989 and 1992; those taking Ecstasy rose from 1% to 7%. “There’s a whole generation of young people involved,” admits Keith Hellawell, the chief constable of West Yorkshire.
Despite the hardline words of Mr. Howard and other ministers, the police have become more pragmatic. For a start, they have become dramatically more tolerant of cannabis. In 1982, over 70% of those caught in possession of the drug were punished (with either a fine, community service or imprisonment). In 1992 only 30% were punished. Most caught with cannabis are now given a mere caution.
But, crucially, the approach entails more relaxed enforcement of the law. The Scottish Office recently complained that in the early 1980s a police crackdown on heroin users led to needle sharing and thus boosted HIV infection. So the police now steer clear of needle exchanges and spend more of their time chasing drug dealers rather than users. In fact, some police have become so concerned not to disrupt treatment that they say they have given up even asking questions of those visiting needle exchanges, though this might help them gather information on dealers.
The police reap benefits from such a policy too. Making it easier for addicts to seek cures, for example, can reduce crime. Studies show that around 90% of heroin users finance their habits from shoplifting or burglary. A few clinics are allowed to prescribe drugs themselves, rather than substitutes, to addicts. The Halton clinic, near Liverpool, claims particular success for its small-scale experiment in legalization. A study of 150 addicts prescribed cocaine or heroin showed they committed 96% fewer crimes while under treatment. Senior officers, such as Mr. Hellawell, are now calling for more research into such schemes.
Both chief constables and those who treat users are also beginning to complain that drugs education is too doctrinaire. They want teachers to admit to children that taking drugs can be pleasant as well as harmful. “The days of frightening people are over,” argues Mike Goodman, the director of Release, the national drugs advice agency.
Many children, after all, realize that moderate soft-drug use may be no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco. Surveys shows that 30% of 15-16-year-olds say they have taken drugs. Mr. Hellawell, too, advocates giving pupils better information. “You’ve got to be honest with children,” he says. And yet whether more honesty, rather than scare tactics, actually reduces drug use among children remains unproven.
So far, the softening of policy towards drugs and the laws which criminalize their use have co-existed. But for how long? The police, for example, may retreat further from prosecuting cannabis users. The Department of Health may decide to reduce the health-risks of adulterated illegal drugs by allowing more clinics to dispense heroin and cocaine. And teachers, forced to concede that cannabis may be no more damaging to health than tobacco, could soon begin to stumble over explanations of why cannabis is outlawed. The contradictions of criminalization, in other words, can only become more apparent.