Opinion: Our flawed drug laws are at heart of riots

David Davis MP, in his appearance on the Question Time “riots special” said: “There are estates in Alan Simpson’s constituency where there are youngsters the age of 12 or 13 who got £30 a day paid for delivering drugs on whose estate the man to look up to was the drug dealers”

Brian Paddick: “Exactly”

Davis “because he had a big car and he lived well. And if we create circumstances like that it’ll be no surprise we get the problems we’ve had in London and the Midlands and the North in the last week.”

This is a fairly astute recognition of the central problem. Katharine Birbal-Singh was all over the television in the days after the riots bemoaning the lack of authority figures in these young people’s lives.

She’s wrong. There are authority figures. It’s just they are not the authority figures we would wish for them. What if the only affluent men with big cars and ostentatious “bling” living in these communities are the ones who have made that money by exploiting the drugs market?

While the rare footballing and musical successes might up sticks and leave, the all too common drug dealer remains to demonstrate to all the children in the area that they can achieve wealth and power. They don’t need to work hard, train, or practise skills. They just need to fall in with the right gang and they’ll receive a cut of the spoils. Why would any 13 year-old child stay in school if they could be earning a good, dishonest wage?

By no means all of young people are drawn into the drug market, but it can be no surprise that the cultural effects spread. The kids with the best accessories will be the ones that have the drug money. The aggression and attitude that these young recruits learn from their superiors then spreads among the peers that want to be like the kids who have it all. The idea that the police are the enemy spreads in the same way, but with the added reinforcement of stop and search powers making young people feel suspected of criminality when they are guilty of nothing. Unjustified suspicion of young people can only encourage a suspicion and resentment in return.

We have, as David Davis says, created a circumstance which encourages criminality. We have done this by mistakenly drawing the line of criminality well within an area where the morality is not instinctive.

Let’s face it. Selling cannabis, to a young person unaware of the harms it can cause, is about as likely to cause a crisis of conscience as the act of giving a fat man pie. But yet that young person is now a criminal. They have crossed that bridge. The police are now their enemy and not their friend. Other criminal acts are just steps and not the leaps that might be necessary to cause a second thought.

The people engaged in rioting have either committed criminal acts already or have witnessed the rewards that criminality can bring in their peers and their criminal authority figures. They regard the police as their enemy due to the fact that they themselves routinely commit criminal acts, have picked up on the culture of those who have committed criminal acts, or have been repeatedly suspected by the police of crime without any grounds. Their moral boundaries are confused.

The simple solution comes in the government control and regulation of psychoactive drugs. The government has up until now entirely abdicated responsibility for the control of most (not alcohol and tobacco) psychoactive drugs to criminal gangs. With that abdication of responsibility they have handed a multi-billion dollar market to criminals. Disputes that occur within this market can not be handled in the courts, so they are resolved by the violent deployment of knives or guns.

Prohibition has placed idols of conspicuous consumption and defiant masculinity within every deprived community in the land. The teachers and youth workers with their unreliable, 10-year-old run-arounds and their affordable clothing simply can’t compete for youth’s attention.

It will take a while to carefully prise away the wealth and power from these criminal idols. We don’t know what effects controlling and regulating drugs will have upon communities, or indeed on the behaviour of the idols themselves. It seems sensible for the supply and sale of cannabis to be the first that is considered. It is after all the illegal drug that is the most widely used, and the drug that the population would be most relaxed about being legally available.

Once we evaluate what effects cannabis regulation has we can continue to bleed power away from the criminal idols by regulating other drugs if the evaluations indicate this to be wise. We have seen in the shooting of Mark Duggan (if the Daily Mail is correct to believe locals that call him a gun-carrying crack dealer) that trying to challenge their power through enforcement risks provoking their hordes of followers to wreak havoc nationwide.

This is just one of many potential explanations for the terrifying events of the past week. Unlike the vast majority of the others it comes with a ready-made solution. I genuinely believe that we won’t be able to bring these young people back into society until we remove the powerful corrupting forces that draw them away. We’ve tried being tough on drugs for 40 years. Many loud voices are now calling for us to be tough on our children. Isn’t it about time we got smart on both?

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  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Aug '11 - 11:10am

    It would be nice to think you were on to something here. But is there any actual hard evidence to suggest that removing gangs’ ability to make money from illegal drugs would lead to gang members all throwing away their guns and applying for jobs in call centres – or would they not simply diversify into other areas (e.g. usury, protection rackets), which the gangs already do anyway? If, as you say, the rewards are simply too tempting, then that will always be the case – they will always find some sort of criminal activity that will pay better than an honest day’s work.

    “Why would any 13 year-old child stay in school if they could be earning a good, dishonest wage?”

    For the same reasons I did, and presumably you too. Most kids make the right choices – it’s an insult to them to suggest that those who make the wrong choices somehow had NO choice.

  • Stuart: The dealing of drugs is easy, victimless for the most part, and not a massive moral barrier. The risk/reward ratio is I suspect far far lower than for other, more confrontational crimes. I’m not saying that kids have no choice, but the temptation is clearly too great for many of them to resist. Should we not try to remove that temptation?

    There was an article in the Observer yesterday that again suggests I’m on to something:


    “He mentions something that Clasford Stirling has also said to me: how, for some, with few paths available for them to follow, the figure in their community with the big car, the drugs and money appears to offer an alternative. “The challenge is for us to open up more paths.”

    I am suggesting that the challenge is also to close off the criminal path, thus making the virtuous paths so much more attractive in relative terms.

  • Stuart – there isn’t any evidence, because a new approach hasn’t been tried. What is clear is that (as always) prohibition fails, and in this case it is a costly failure, not just in terms of financial cost – although that is huge – but in the corrosion of authority as ever ‘harder’ approaches simply fail one after the other. It does though add to the romance, the thrill if you like, for those who imagine themselves to be racketeers, a big element to drug gang swagger.

    Unscientifically, I lived one street away from Handsworth in the 80s and early 90s – the one lesson that I took from that is that the current drugs laws don’t and won’t work, and it is time that as a society we woke up to that. And I speak by the way as someone who has no interest in taking drugs myself, I don’t see the point.


    – btw, it isn’t an insult to suggest that some children make the wrong choices, they do, it’s fact, ask almost any pf their teachers. You might not like their choices, and for what it’s worth neither do I, but some still make bad ones.

  • Daniel Henry 15th Aug '11 - 11:43am

    Illegal drugs is one of the bigger sources of income. Just like how American gangs became extremely powerful and influential when the gained the alcohol market in the 20s, the illegal drugs market feeds gang culture in the UK.

    Without the illegal drug trade thereds still be gangs and illegal activity but on a much smaller scale and there would be so many influential successes to influence kids.

  • I believe that there are many reasons for legalising drugs, but I’m wary of being yet another commenter who argues that things would all be better if only [insert policy they’ve been going on about for years]. I agree that criminalising drugs hasn’t helped the situation you describe, but decriminalising (while the Right Thing To Do) won’t be a panacea.

  • Adam: I didn’t supply a title for the piece and am rather uncomfortable with the “I have all the answers” stance the title implies.

    “Decriminalising” certainly won’t be a panacea as it is just a step on the road to full regulation. Indeed decriminalisation keeps the market in the hands of the criminals, just hopefully reducing demand through more effective treatment and preventative education. Placing the drug market in the hands of the state should reduce the power and influence of the criminals though.

    People like David Davis, Camila Batmanghelidjh and the community activists I quote above have been hinting at this problem. I felt it necessary to put forward a forceful argument for this issue to have a greater prominence in the debate. I hope you’d agree that that would be helpful.

  • Do you live on one of these estates Ewan? Do you have first hand, or any experience of gang culture? I could be wrong, but reading your article, tells me the answers are no. Where are the voices of experience on this subject? Why are we not hearing the voices of those directly affected? It seems, as ever, that the same voices are ignored, whilst the same voices are aired and listened to. And then we wonder why there is a disconnect.

  • Regarding just getting “tough on drugs” http://www.icsdp.org/docs/ICSDP-1%20-%20FINAL.pdf “The available scientific evidence suggests that increasing the intensity of law enforcement interventions to disrupt drug markets is unlikely to reduce drug gang violence. Instead, the existing evidence suggests that drug related violence and high homicide rates are likely a natural consequence of drug prohibition and that increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced methods of disrupting drug distribution networks may unintentionally increase violence”

    As you say, it is time to get smart on drugs.

  • Ewan: Thanks for clarifying re the title. I am happy to see this being talked about and promoted, and I don’t disagree with much that you’ve written. I’m currently seeing everyone with any political or social proposal coupling them to the rioting, and I wouldn’t like this cause to get accused of bandwagonning, so I’m probably being oversensitive.

  • Jayu:

    I haven’t lived on deprived estates (though I did live above the post office on Peckham Road for a bit) or been involved in gang culture, but the voices of experience I have already linked to in the from of the Observer article quote. David Davis highlights what happens in one estate in Sunderland. Camila Batmanghelidjh hints at the same problem in her article in the Independent
    “The drug economy facilitates a parallel subculture with the drug dealer producing more fiscally efficient solutions than the social care agencies who are too under-resourced to compete.”

    If you have first hand experience or know people that do then please let me know where I have gone wrong with this piece. I make no claim to drug laws being the only important factor in the riots, but I think we would be fools to ignore this issue.

  • Old Codger Chris 15th Aug '11 - 2:42pm

    This needs to be approached with great care. We have to accept that if drugs can be used legally they will be used by some people who would not otherwise have done so. Some of those people and those who love them will be harmed as a result – some will die. The same is, of course, true of alcohol.

    But criminalising the mere use of something which may harm the user is the nanny state at its worst. Society needs to make the facts crystal clear (including the fact that most drug users presumably suffer no great harm) treat people like adults, and require them to behave accordingly. The glamour and rich criminal pickings must be removed.

  • Richard Hill 15th Aug '11 - 2:59pm

    I basicaly agree, Illegal drugs are definitely the thin end of a sharp wedge for leading people into crime. Also they work perfectly for creating criminal networks. I remember be involved of that area of life and at that time it was easy to find contacts more or less any where in the country (I have changed since then) and from the drug network get into any form of crime wanted. The problem I see with legalising drugs though is how to keep them as restricted as possible. They are just to much for some people. Drugs do ruin lives, I’ve seen it many times. When your invoved in it you don’t see it but I’ve seen a lot of people get sucked in never to come out. However because it makes the creation of networks so easy I think we have to find a way of taking it from a criminal problem to a medical problem.

  • Cheers Prateek.

    I’ve started a thread in the forum about putting together an emergency motion on the riots. There may be many varied efforts submitted. Do you think SLF might be interested in producing one which incorporates the clauses I’ve laid out in the forum post?


  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Aug '11 - 5:32pm

    Peter: “Stuart’s hesitation about ending prohibition is the politics of despair.”

    Well, it’s been a despairing kind of week… Though actually, my intention was not to say that I am opposed to liberalisation of drug laws, I was only voicing a little skepticism as to whether such a move would make a huge difference to the prevalence of gangs.

    (To be clear, I have actually always been rather in favour of liberalising drug laws; though I think it needs to be done extremely carefully, and the form that this liberalisaton would take is very important. As a parent myself, Old Codger Chris’s point about legalisation increasing uptake is certainly something that resonates with me. I would not like to see hard drugs being as easily available as alcohol or cigarettes. In my ideal world, drugs would be legal but far fewer people would be using them – is such a thing possible??)

    Ewan: I am glad you have disowned the article’s terrible title. I was nearly taking you to task for it but am now glad that I did not..

  • Thanks Stuart,

    I too hope to find that ideal world in which a regulatory framework can actually help reduce drug use. I do accept that we may have to settle for a situation in which drug use increases but harms are greatly reduced due to better education being delivered at point of sale on various harms and optimising safety. If you have a look at the poll I link to in the article (and this goes for Chris too) you can read about what I regard as the “strict government control and regulation” option. Here it is again here: http://twitpic.com/4z8bmt/full

  • Liberal Eye 15th Aug '11 - 6:22pm

    Well said, Ewan.

    It’s always seemed odd (and that’s being polite!) to me that those who profess to believe in the power of markets apparently stop doing so the moment drugs are involved. Any solution HAS to tackle the profit motive.

    For me the case for reform is overwhelming – and even more so now. But having said that I do think reformers need to spell out what they want rather carefully as there are many out there who positively want to muddy the water and will deliberately misunderstand and misrepresent the reformist position. And that means effectively distinguishing users and pushers.

    I would like to see the state make drugs a state monopoly with distribution handled via a prescription like system through licensed chemists. Each prescription could be provided in a bar-coded wrapper which, with online technology, could be linked to the drug user. This is not very different from what some online retail systems already do so it would be quite easy and cheap to implement. And, once done, it would mean that any police office could establish that anyone found in possession of drugs was entitled to have them – and moreover entitled to be in possession of that particular prescription.

    Such a system would make life effectively impossible for the pushers. To add to their problems I would then increase the penalties for unlicensed selling.

  • Ewan, I certainly agree with you that drug-taking should eventually become legal But where on earth do you get the idea that drug-dealing is “a victimless crime”?
    What about the casualties of turf wars, which are probably the major cause of black-on-black gun crime? Or the numberless burglary and robbery victims of drug-starved addicts – including , in most cases, their families?

    Unfortunately, proposals to legalise drugs will always be opposed by the main gainers………not the drug barons themselves, but the highly-paid lawyers, judges and police who rely on the drugs trade to produce a steady, predictable demand for their services.

  • Radicalibral 15th Aug '11 - 7:23pm

    Jayju I see wheer you are coming from as drugs to blight Local Communities, but equally can no longer offer platitudes to not offering a real alternative to this “industry”. We must learn the lessons that those who want to benefit from the rewards drugs bring are not prepared to wait to achieve the same rewards from working from Low Skilled, and Low Paid Jobs. We must instil a culture of aspiration underpinned by our Education system helping to produce people who want to strive to achieve their potential. More importantly encourage, and facilitate much more easily those “Alan Sugars” who “want” to achieve the wealth this country needs to underpin the Social Policies necessary to achieve a more cohesive society. A society where people have choices and not the choice of no choice.

  • Richard Hill 15th Aug '11 - 9:01pm

    I think once drugs are not illegal there is a good chance people will use them less. I came to the conclusion one of the best bits about doing drugs was playing cat and mouse with the police and winning and the buzz you get from that. I don’t like to say it but that is probably the way a lot of the looters feel right now and it is probably one of the reasons they do it. To many people try to find high flying ideas to justifiy it when really it’s just down to when your young and you haven’t worked out how to pay your way in life, have plenty of spare time it seems good fun.

  • Have you heard anybody in a position of authority in the Liberal Democrat party say anything remotely like this since they got into government? When the Home Office announced a move away from science-based policy-making, that there would no longer be scientific representation on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, how did the Liberal Democrats in government respond?

    With silence.

    On this hugely important public health, criminal justice and libertarian issue the party leadership is neither liberal nor democratic. I have given up on them.

  • Richard Hill 16th Aug '11 - 9:52am

    I can understand the party not mentioning too much about drugs. To do anything you have to get voted in. We have to realize that some people are, because of total distortion of the reality of drugs by the media, terrified of drugs. If we ever want to progress we have to except this fact. Whats the expression, softly soflty catchee monkey.

  • John Oakes:

    I think there is a difference between victimhood of the actual act of dealing and the unintended consequences of prohibition that you describe. I used the word “victimless” because they aren’t victims, they’re customers, and so unlikely to make a complaint to the police.

  • Richard Hill 16th Aug '11 - 11:02am

    I like victimless/customer difference. It’s so true. From my knowledge of things it wasn’t normally the dealers forcing the customers, it was the customers forcing the dealers.

  • Kevin Colwill 16th Aug '11 - 4:15pm

    There is a case for the legalising drugs just as there is a case for legalising prostitution but you don’t solve the core issues by legalising ever more activities. What if the “big man” on an estate was trafficking children for sex?

    Of course we need to inspire young people to be the best they can. In a competitive society, however, some will end up at the bottom of the labour market — we can’t all be Alan Sugars. There must be dignity and meaning for those doing those jobs few of us would choose to do. It’s not achieved by starving those on benefit into minimum wage jobs. It requires real cultural change in all of us, not least an understanding that exploiting those at the bottom of the labour market isn’t a clever way to run society.

  • When the Home Office announced a move away from science-based policy-making, that there would no longer be scientific representation on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, how did the Liberal Democrats in government respond?

    With silence.

    Say what? Les Iversen isn’t a scientist?

  • Richard: I can understand the party not mentioning too much about drugs. To do anything you have to get voted in. We have to realize that some people are, because of total distortion of the reality of drugs by the media, terrified of drugs. If we ever want to progress we have to except this fact. Whats the expression, softly soflty catchee monkey.


    So how is the progress actually going to happen then Richard? What we see happening is the government moving in precisely the wrong direction, and the Lib Dems who are part of that government doing and saying NOTHING in response.

    What is the point of supporting and paying for a party that says and does NOTHING when it gets into power?

  • Ed Long: On December 6, 2010, the government made plans to remove a legal requirement which meant the ACMD had to have scientists and experts on the panel.

    Under these new proposals the panel would no longer have to have:

    (a) Someone who practices veterinary medicine; (b) Someone who practices medicine, other than veterinary medicine; (c) Someone who practices dentistry; (d) Someone who practices pharmacy; (e) Someone from the pharmaceutical industry; (f) A chemist, other than from the pharmaceutical industry.

    So much for science-based policy. And the Lib Dems just let this happen. Useless twats.

  • So much for science-based policy. And the Lib Dems just let this happen. Useless twats.

    Yes, you’re right about the bill. But you originally wrote that there is no longer scientific representation on the ACMD. In fact about a third of the ACMD is made up of scientists. The bill removes the requirement for the council to have 6 positions from pre-defined areas. In the past, any council member resigning from one of those positions makes it hard for the council to perform until a replacement is appointed. I would feel safer if there was a requirement for scientific expertise on the panel, but the former regulations were too rigid: why should the dental expert leaving their post invalidate the whole council?

    As for Lib Dem silence, Julian Huppert tabled EDM 1148 calling for amendments the day after the bill was announced and the majority of signatories were Lib Dems.

  • As a means by which to make some progress UK drug control policy may I suggest the Impact Assessment. To quote selectively from an article by Danny Kushlick: ‘call upon policy makers to apply the established policy scrutiny tool of Impact Assessment (IA) to expose the failure of the war on its own terms.’

    Impact assessment (IA) is “a process aimed at structuring and supporting the development of policies. It identifies and assesses the problem at stake and the objectives pursued. It identifies the main options for achieving the objective and analyses their likely impacts in the economic, environmental and social fields. It outlines advantages and disadvantages of each option and examines possible synergies and trade-offs” (source: European Commission)

    The following is taken from: ‘Time for an Impact Assessment of Drug Policy’, International Drug Policy Consortium, 2009:

    “For too long, the debate around improving drug policy has been emotive, polarised and deadlocked. A useful way to determine the best mix of evidence-based drug policies is through an independent, neutral process that all stakeholders can support, because it does not commit anyone to a particular position in advance. One way to achieve this is through IAs of drug policy, at the national and international levels, that compare the economic, environmental and social costs and benefits of existing policies with a range of alternatives. To ensure all stakeholders can support the process, the alternatives assessed should range from more intensive/punitive enforcement approaches, through options for decriminalisation of personal use, to models for legal regulation of drug production and supply.”

    “The historic nature of the drug policy debate has meant that policy development has often lacked objective scrutiny. By rationally and methodically focusing on the evidence, in terms of costs and benefits of different options, and using established methodologies already embedded in most governments’ processes, IA brings drug policy back into the arena of science, avoiding the polarising clashes that have long defined the debate. A call for IA is essentially a call for better evidence, and a structured approach to assessing policy options to inform debate and determine the best way forward. As such it is politically neutral, and a very reasonable request to policy makers.”

    IA serves a number of very useful functions, because it:

    *challenges policy makers to apply evidence to policy
    *drives drug policy into the realm of the normal in policy making terms
    *helps bring drug policy out of the securitised and into the normal policy arena
    *helps develop the evidence base for the current regime
    *encourages policy makers to explore alternatives to prohibition
    *enables public scrutiny of a comparison between regimes

  • Darryl Bickler 17th Aug '11 - 3:14pm

    Ed – the Act is clear that the SSHD SHALL make arrangements so that various professions can conduct their business lawfully. There is a statutory representative of the key professions to ensure that they can make representations about their needs, their feedback from the community and to create a broad spectrum of multidisciplinary scientific expertise. What is happening now on LIbDem watch is that the provisions of the Act are being abrogated so there is no need for any scientists, just a lot of malleable wishy washy cranks and stooges can make up the whole council. There is no excuse for not having loads of experts on the council, its not as if there is a national shortage of chairs which was the inference given. There should be world class scientists and experts properly funded completely ahead of the game and with legal advisers too. It’s unbelievable shoddy right now and getting worse, its a vertiable rag bag of dad’s army professionalism meeting once a month for a chat about things.

    That’s not to say that there won’t be any decent members, but with govt controlling it there will be no safeguard whatsoever. It’s like when you give the police more powers, they use them to the maximum and then a bit more, nobody but a fool gives the govt unfettered discrretion which is what is happening now.

  • Kevin Colwill 17th Aug '11 - 3:57pm

    @ Darryl Bickler…My point is not on about the nature of drugs but the nature of crime. The “big men” looked up to on rough estates may make a lot of money dealing drugs but does it stop there? How many also run prostitution, including under-age girls and boys, and many other crimes including old fashioned extortion?

    Simply that “legalising” (in common speak) drugs does not do away with the “big man” or remove crime as a route to perceived easy money.

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of the drugs debate it’s a red herring, the appeal of illegal activity has to be countered by providing worth and status to low wage work. That is a cultural challenge we can all sign up to.

  • Darryl Bickler 17th Aug '11 - 4:29pm

    We have created an enormous criminal market for drugs – criminals offer a great service really as without them we would have no way of getting the drugs we need. We should support good dealers; and no, most are not involved in sexploitation of children etc. although clearly there is a lot of criminality that ought to be addressed by various social transformatory projects, but this drugs subject underpins so much of the whole messy kaboodle. If you want to dismantle criminality then removing the market criminals have a monopoly on would be a massive step forwards, it wouldn’t stop all crime, but a lot of it. I don’t see what you are saying, how can it be a red herring to remove the bulk of their business? It’s only an illegal activity because we make it so, it doesn’t have to be and that’s the first step, make the business a legal business.

  • Darryl Bickler 17th Aug '11 - 5:16pm

    Drug dealing is not connected to the criminality issue directly, that is the final outcome, what’s missing is that we are talking about millions of people who by being users or small suppliers do no harm to anybody, and that the choice of criminality starts with the government, never the user, and the individual being otherwise law abiding is induced into becomming involved in criminal possession and supply of controlled drugs.

  • “there can be no doubt that, in implementing the law, the present concentration on cannabis weakens respect for the law… It gives large numbers of otherwise law abiding people a criminal record. It inordinately penalises and marginalises young people for what might prove to be little more than youthful experimentation. It bears most heavily on young people in the streets in cities who are also likely to be poor and members of minority ethnic communities. The evidence strongly indicates that the current law and it’s operation creates more harm than the drug itself.”

    The Runciman report on cannabis, 2000

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