Ending the civil war on drugs

The war on drugs is a civil war and it's time to call a halt, writes Kenny MacAskill MSP

By: 
Kenny MacAskill MSP
Date: 
Wednesday, 06 January, 2016

If there is a ‘war on drugs’, it’s a civil war; the main protagonists our own people not some foreign enemy.

It’s a problem that’s rooted more in social and economic inequalities, than in the money and violence it generates. It’s also longstanding, having afflicted Scotland and other jurisdictions over the centuries.

Is there a simple solution? Probably not, given both the issues that affect individuals and the hedonism that others choose. Suggesting that there is one is foolish but equally so, is advising that even stricter legislation or ever more vigorous enforcement can resolve it.

That doesn’t mean nothing can or should be done. The harm to individuals is too great and the damage to society too significant to simply ignore it.

The question has to be: is there a better way to tackle it?

The answer to that has surely to be yes. Laws and law enforcement are currently burgeoning but the problems are increasing not decreasing.

Courts are filled and communities harmed on a daily basis. Prisons the length and breadth of the land are burdened by individuals often punished as much for the underlying addiction that afflicts them as the crime they have committed.

They need treatment more than incarceration.

Violence and corruption are growing as turf wars rage for increasing profits. Legitimate businesses and even areas of the economy are losing out to organised crime. The levels of violence associated with parts of London or Liverpool are moving into other communities in the UK, as the situation in those cities also worsens.

Nation states too have been undermined as narco states have developed. Even the United States, with all the firepower they can muster, is unable to stem the relentless tide; as the real issues rest in their own land and not through some foreign insurgency.

The nature of the product being plied is also changing. As many challenges now come from so called legal highs, as from currently classified drugs. If law enforcement struggles to cope with illegal drugs how can it be expected to address legal ones?

Suggestions of simply classifying them all as illegal are fanciful and fraught with difficulties. Moreover, a significant minority views the existing legislation with disdain or contempt; always a difficult place for law enforcement given the requirement for laws to be respected as well as enforced.

It’s not simply alienated youth but many middle aged and middle classes who scorn aspects of it.

The War on Drugs has failed by any criteria. So what can be done? A Commission to depoliticise what is one of the great social ills of our time should be the start.

Political rhetoric veers towards the machismo not the social, health, educational and economic answers that are required. Vested party interests dominate, not the collective well-being of our society.

To be fair efforts, have been made before and those involved treated disgracefully. However, it is still the basis for progress. The political steer to be given has to be to move from viewing it as a law enforcement issue to a public health one.

Thus charged, a Commission could look at the solutions being pursued elsewhere in the world to see what might be applicable here.

Some places have a model of legalisation of some drugs, as with many states in the USA. Others, a decriminalisation policy at a street level, as with Portugal.

However, they are all predicated more on prevention than punishment; a social and health issue as much as a criminal justice one. The precise model should be for the Commission to report.

None of the models have a perfect solution. That’s understandable for an issue with no precise answer. However, some progress is being made both in reducing harm and the levels of violence. That can only be a good thing.

Individuals and communities benefit. Reducing the prison population and treating addicts where they live, by those who are trained not to incarcerate but help; cutting back on the degeneration into violence and corruption that’s scarring too many communities and harming too many individuals.

Laws and law enforcement there would still be, but it would tackle those who cause the most harm. Police and other agencies could concentrate on the major gangs not the street dealers or lost souls.

Moreover, at a time of financial austerity, hard pressed funds could be put to better use, addressing prevention and diversion, and educating those who indulge about the risks and providing opportunities for those whose lives are blighted and see it as an escape from the daily grind.

There’s no perfect solution but there has to be a better way.


Kenny MacAskill MSP is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh Eastern. Between 2007 and 2014 he was the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice.