End drugs prohibition era, says police chief

A senior UK police officer has called for all drug use to be decriminalised, saying that ‘villains’ are the only people who benefit from current policies. Is it time to end the ‘war on drugs’?

Between 1921 and 1933, alcohol was banned as a dangerous and destructive substance in the USA. Yet this is not remembered as a period of abstinence: instead, the Prohibition Era is popularly associated with decadent and illicit parties where gangsters supplied the drink. ‘Bootleggers’ like Al Capone made millions smuggling alcohol, the Mafia flourished and the American government was riddled with corruption.

Prohibition was clearly a failure. Yet according to a senior figure in the British police, countries around the world are still making the same mistake. This time, however, the product giving a lifeline to organised crime is not alcohol but drugs.

In an article for yesterday’s Observer, the Chief Constable of the Durham police called for an end to the so-called ‘war on drugs’. ‘Since 1971,’ he wrote, ‘the Misuse of Drugs Act has put billions into the hands of villains who sell adulterated drugs on the street.’

Chief Constable Mike Barton is careful to make clear that he is not suggesting a ‘free for all’: ‘drugs are bad’, he says, and people should be discouraged from taking them. But addicts need help rather than punishment. If the state supplied limited quantities of illegal drugs to addicts while treating their dependency, criminal gangs would be deprived of their main source of income.

It might sound like a radical plan. But in fact similar policies are already in place in several countries. The most famous case is Portugal, where criminal penalties for possessing and using drugs were abolished 12 years ago. Possession is still illegal – but the seriousness of the offence is ‘equivalent to getting a parking ticket’.

Does it work? The statistics are inconclusive. Overall rates of drug use have slightly increased. But thanks to a new focus on drugs awareness and on treating addiction, far more users now attend rehabilitation. The incidence of drug-related illnesses like HIV and hepatitis C, meanwhile, has fallen dramatically.

The question it comes down to, then, is this: do we want to cleanse society of drug addiction and abuse, or should we settle for simply limiting the damage?

War weary

Drugs ruin lives, ravage communities and tear families apart, say supporters of the ban. Admitting defeat is unthinkable: we must not stop fighting until we have purged our society of evil substances like heroin and cocaine.

That is never going to happen, insist opponents: drugs are here to stay, like it or not, and the best thing we can do is to limit the damage they cause. Ending this prohibition will take money away from criminals and allow addicts to get the treatment they urgently need.

You Decide

  1. Should politicians aim for a world free of drugs?
  2. The philosopher John Stuart Mill said that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’ Do you agree? And how does this apply to drugs laws?


  1. ‘It’s time to end the war on drugs,’ said Chief Constable Mike Barton. Hold a class debate on this proposition and put it to the vote.
  2. Pick a drug (legal or illegal) and make a presentation designed to warn people about the risks of using it.

Some People Say...

“Alcohol and tobacco are bigger threats to public health than any illegal drug.”

What do you think?

Q & A

If they’re talking about legalising drugs, does that mean they’re safe?
No. Each drug is different and the degree of threat it poses varies, but no drug is on the banned list without good reason. Cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, speed: all of these are potent substances with the potential to harm your physical and mental health. Always remember that drugs are dangerous and addiction destroys lives.
What about legal highs?
Just because something is legal, that doesn’t make it safe. In fact, it might be even more risky: many legal highs are unknown quantities, too new to the market for experts to have clear knowledge of what the side effects might be. No mind-altering substance is totally safe and harmless.

Word Watch

This slang term for smuggling liquor comes from the trick of stuffing flasks or bottles down a trouser leg or boot. Smuggling alcohol was an extremely lucrative business in 1920s America: the gang run by the famous Chicago kingpin Al Capone is thought to have built up a fortune of roughly $100m.
War on drugs
A phrase first popularised by US President Richard Nixon in 1971. Nixon called drugs ‘America’s public enemy number one’ and called for ‘a new, all-out offensive’. But the USA is not alone in its hardline stance on drug use.
Misuse of Drugs Act
Not altogether coincidentally, this law was also passed in 1971. It introduced a classification system dividing illegal drugs into three classes, with different punishments for possessing or selling each one. Class A drugs include heroin, cocaine and MDMA (ecstasy). Cannabis is class B.
HIV and hepatitis C
Both of these diseases are spread through bodily fluids, including the blood. That makes them a serious risk for addicts who reuse needles to inject drugs.


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