Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

The Drugs Wars Don't Work

By Rachel Briggs. Source: The Foreign Policy Centre

Holy Wars Against Drugs are doomed to failure, says Rachel Briggs

Martin Wolf made a cogent case for legalising cannabis in Monday's Financial Times. When even the Telegraph agrees, you could be forgiven for thinking that the drug debate was over. But the media furore about cannabis that followed last week's Police Foundation Report masks a more important debate. The real discussion needs to focus on failure of successive Governments to reduce the flow of hard drugs into the country.

The latest Government plan for a US style drugs Agency, (reported in Monday's FT) is in danger of becoming another expensive white elephant. While the proposed co-operation between the Home Office, the Foreign Office, MI6 and the police is welcome, it fails to recognise that drugs cannot be tackled in isolation. We need to give up on the "war on drugs" that has dominated Western policy for ten years and replace it with a war on crime.

The current vogue for "joined-up" thinking in drug policy often attempts to join the wrong things. Drugs war rhetoric links heroin addicts in Bradford to kingpins in Bogota, needle-exchange programmes in Aldershot with crop spraying in Afghanistan. This American-led campaign to trace supply lines back to source has backfired. A 125 billion dollar jihad against drug production in Bolivia and Peru has reduced production by 40% in the last two years. But the US Government didn't bank on production moving to Colombia. In the same period, Colombian production has risen by a third, prices have fallen – and more cocaine is entering the US than ever before.

In the meantime, developments will transform the face of the drugs industry – making coca plantations in South America redundant. Scientists predict that synthetic drugs could be produced at the point of sale. And as the Government sets up its Royal Commission on Genetically Modified Food, the underworld is looking forward to the prospect of GM Cocaine increasing potency and profit margins.

If we are serious about joined-up government, the link we need to make - that we haven't made yet - is between drugs and asylum scams, small arms trafficking, kidnap for ransom and extortion rackets. It has now become clear that the groups who ship drugs across borders are the same criminal gangs that are responsible for the rest of organised crime. Albanian criminals operating in the Balkans aren't fussy – coffee or cocaine – whatever offers the highest return for lowest risk at any given time.

The Government spends billions on tackling all these problems, but the whole is often less than the sum of its parts. Different groups of civil servants beaver away on different projects at opposite ends of Whitehall: there is the counter-terrorism policy department in the Foreign Office, the Immigration Directorate of the Home Office and the Serious Fraud Squad.

The same arbitrary divisions are mirrored in the European Union and United Nations.

Criminals often navigate the gaps between government departments and different national legal systems.

Criminals don't have any respect for national borders. Neither should we. Heroin grown in Afghanistan travels via Kosovo into the Netherlands where it is divided into consignments bound for Britain, France and Spain. International co-operation between police forces is largely based on ad hoc relationships between individual policemen. And there is no guarantee that resources will be allocated to keep track of the chain. Complex operations often end in failure because some of our closest neighbours refuse to share intelligence. The problems don't end there. Even if smugglers are caught red-handed, protracted and expensive court cases, and new obstacles posed by the EU data protection act mean that few criminals will be prosecuted.

What can we do? First, we need watertight international laws. European Union leaders made real progress on police co-operation at their summit in Tampere last year. But crime is a global problem that needs global solutions. The International Criminal Court that is being set up should be used to target drug barons as well as war criminals.

Secondly, we need to understand the new technologies that are producing new types of crime. The Internet makes credit card fraud easier and more lucrative. As more of our personal details are stored on-line, criminals will steal identities as well as deal in cocaine. The Government's Foresight Crime Prevention Panel has recognised that criminals have already logged onto the latest technology. If Government agencies do not raise their game, the gulf between them and us will become unbridgeable.

Finally, we need "joined up" intelligence. Governments around the world need to get better at sharing intelligence with each other. But they don't have all the answers. Companies operating in countries without a framework of law and order often have a good knowledge of the local scene. Governments need a forum to tap into the intelligence that slips through the official channels. The European Union's June Summit on Organised Crime in Lisbon is a first tentative step towards getting business involved.

The war on drugs needs to be a war on organised crime. Over the last ten years, the Government have spent ever-greater sums on tackling drugs. But there have never been more drugs on the streets. While drug related crime soars, the pundits, columnists and pop stars are rehearsing the cannabis debates of the sixties. It's time to clear the haze.

The Anti-Drugs Co-ordinator Keith Hellawell took part in The Foreign Policy Centre's seminar: "After the Drugs War": international challenges and solutions" on Thursday 6 April