It's our last chance to get tough on drugs
By Neil McKeganey
We used to count the number of addicts in the hundreds; we now count them in the hundreds of thousands. The UK Drug Policy Commission's report published yesterday - Tackling Drug Markets and Distribution Networks - contains an alarming body blow of further statistics.
Britain has a problem which is now thought to be worth in excess of £5.3 billion a year, and which the Government is spending about £1.5 billion a year trying to tackle.
As much as 60 per cent of crime may be connected to the illegal drugs trade; and the sex trade in our cities, and increasingly in our rural areas, has the women's dependency on illegal drugs at its heart.
There are thought to be in excess of 300,000 children growing up in homes where one or both of their parents are dependent upon illegal drugs. For these children drug abuse is a fact of their everyday life.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime has suggested that countries get the drug problem they deserve. But if that is the case, what, one might ask, has Britain done to deserve a drug problem that is virtually without equal in Europe?
The easy - and misleading - answer is to say that poverty and social exclusion are causing the problem. The trouble with that response, though, is that it divests the individual from taking any responsibility for their abuse.
Yes, drug taking proliferates in areas of social breakdown but it also causes social breakdown. Abuse has also now spread across all social classes, and among the rich and the famous.
The "poverty causes drug abuse" mantra is simply too easy an explanation. For too long we have couched our nation's drug habit within a moral vacuum in which the decision to use or not use illegal drugs is seen to be a matter for the individual.
Some commentators seem to be frightened of expressing a moral view in relation to illegal drugs, for fear of being castigated as a spokesman for the extreme Right. But moral judgments are not the preserve of the Right-wing and moral agnosticism is not the preserve of the political Left.
Moral judgments express our view of how we want to live and how we want to be treated. Instead of seeing illegal drug use as a human right, we need to see it for the hugely negative social cancer that it represents.
For the past 15 years, government has pursued a drug policy that has been more about reducing the harms associated with illegal drug use than about reducing the scale of the problem itself.
That is where we are going wrong. Yes, policy must focus on treatments that enable addicts to become drug free, but also on hard-hitting prevention with robust enforcement.
Policing the problem means tackling street-level drug dealing directly. It must also mean tougher action against those who profit from the trade. We need to ensure that our police are protecting our communities. This will not be done through intermittent, high-profile campaigns, but sustained action.
The UK drug problem is barely 40 years old. In that time, it has spread to take in somewhere in the region of 1 per cent of the population. And that's only directly. Indirectly, it is responsible for over half of the nation's crime and thereby reaches towards us all.
The horrors associated with even a 2 per cent growth in our problem would simply be beyond the capacity of any of the current systems to cope and the drugs trade would truly have won.
If we don't tackle drug abuse right now, we will look back in 10 years' time and regret that we missed our last chance.
Neil McKeganey is Professor of Drug Misuse Research at the University of Glasgow