Drugs: prescription for change

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Julian Critchley, former director of the Cabinet Office Anti-Drug Co-ordination Unit, argued last month that Britain's drugs policy "doesn't work, cannot work, because we have no way of controlling the supply of drugs".

Critchley now claims not only that all drugs should be legalised, but that the majority of professionals in government, police, the NHS and charities share this view. "Yet publicly, all those intelligent, knowledgeable people were forced to repeat the nonsensical mantra that the government would be 'tough on drugs', even though they all knew that the government's policy was actually causing harm."

In 2006-7, the government spent £380 million on drug prevention strategies, but it spends £4 billion annually on treatment relating to class A drugs alone. Meanwhile, the black market for drugs is worth an estimated £5.3 billion. According to Britain's Drugs Commission the market is "too fluid" to be dealt with.

It has not always been so. The crime, poverty and disease caused by drugs are linked intrinsically to their illegal status. If heroin, for example, was available through the NHS it would be unadulterated with toxins such as rat poison and brick dust, and addicts would no longer need to steal to fund their habit. Needles would be clean, but the need to inject would also be removed (injection ensures the heroin isn't wasted).

The biggest lie in the perpetual "war on drugs" is that drugs like heroin are overtly dangerous. The internationally respected Martindale drugs reference journal charts the uses, effects and dangers of over 6,300 drugs. It claims that heroin can be used for pain reduction in adults, the elderly and even babies. The only recorded side-effects are nausea and constipation.

During the early 1990s Dr John Marks used a Home Office licence to prescribe heroin to addicts in Liverpool. The police reported a 96 percent drop in thefts among this group, while deaths related to infection and overdoses stopped entirely. But after ten years the government forced the trial to end. Two years later, 41 of the addicts were dead.

The Home Office response to this latest call for legalisation was predictable: "Drugs are controlled for good reason - they are harmful to health. Their control protects individuals and the public from the harms caused by their misuse."

So why waste so much money and so many lives on these failed policies? The answer is two-fold. At one level, misinformation has permeated society to such an extent that governments assume they would lose all credibility (especially in the press) were they to scale back the "war on drugs".

But it also offers an unprecedented level of control. It gives police the opportunity to harass and raid working class areas, while exporting the "war on drugs" to places like Afghanistan (curtailment of opium production was one "reason" for invasion in 2001 - despite production having more than doubled since).

At the same time, cocaine use among the more affluent is soaring - but for some reason these people are never targeted.