The big question
Why are we asking this now?
BECAUSE IF confirmation were needed that crackdowns on drug use in the UK were having little effect, it came in a report by the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC), an independent group set up to examine the state of the nation's drug trade.
The report, published yesterday, paints a grim picture, suggesting that the billions of pounds spent on attempts to reduce the availability of drugs on the streets have been in vain. It said there was "remarkably little evidence" that action by customs officials, police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency has had any significant effect in disrupting illegal drug markets. The report argued that the UK should try a radically different approach to tackling the misery brought about by drug-dealing and the crime and social disorder associated with it. Others advocate taking the ultimate step - legalisation.
What is the state of the UK drugs trade?
The report said the UK's illegal drug market was one of the most lucrative in the world, with the trade worth a hefty 5.3bn - a third of the size of the country's tobacco market and 41 per cent of the alcohol market, despite the vast sums spent on attempts to limit supply. Half of the trade centres on two of the most addictive and destructive drugs, crack cocaine and heroin.
The UK's drugs trade is made up of about 3,000 wholesalers and 70,000 street-level dealers. When it comes to the "Mr Bigs" keeping shipments of drugs flowing into the country, there are far fewer. About 300 major importers are bringing in the drugs, said the report.
What do we spend trying to cut supplies?
Taxpayers currently shell out 1.5bn on measures designed to tackle the UK's drugs problems. Within that is the 380m that goes towards the reduction of supply, the main target of the report's criticisms. A further 573m goes towards drug abuse treatment. That doesn't even include the massive bill that results from drug- related crime. In 2003-04, that was estimated to have cost the public purse 4bn.
Do seizures have any effect?
The report was unequivocal. It said: "Despite significant drug and asset seizures and drug-related convictions in recent years, drug markets have proven to be extremely resilient. They are highly fluid and adapt effectively to government and law enforcement interventions." It added: "While the availability of controlled drugs is restricted by definition, it appears that additional enforcement efforts have had little adverse effect on the availability of illicit drugs in the UK."
How do we know?
A sure sign that attempts to strangle the supply of drugs have come to little is the fact that prices have continued to fall. Street prices for heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis have all fallen since the start of the decade. The average price for a gram of heroin in 2000 was 70, but that had fallen to 45 by last year. Cocaine has more than halved in price in some areas - from 65 a gram in 2000 to as little as 30 a gram last year.
Even though the number of seizures more than doubled between 1996 and 2005, that only makes up 12 per cent of heroin and nine per cent of all cocaine. The crux of the problem is that experts believe authorities would need to seize between six and eight times more than that to make a real dent in the drugs business. That doesn't seem realistic, leading some - current and former policemen among them - to call for a change in tactics.
The results of the study came as no surprise to Danny Kushlick, head of policy at the pressure group Transform. He said: "This is nothing new - we've known that prohibition measures haven't worked for 20 years. …