The war on drugs: Who is ‘winning’ and will it ever end?

By Mihaela Ivantcheva

In an unprecedented operation called Audacious, the Greater Manchester Police (GMP) invited the public to witness the results of their efforts to tackle drug issues. According to the GMT, the operation was a success. It was a won battle. But are we winning the ‘war on drugs’ in the long-term?

If we take stock of the Operation Audacious, we end up with the following statistics: 75 arrested, 44 charged with drug offences, £2k worth of class A drugs, 15 blocks of cannabis, 20 bags of cannabis, a cannabis farm. If we include other drug-related operations carried out by the GMP in the last couple of months, we will come up with even more impressive statistics.

Communities in Manchester may feel safer now as a substantial number of people involved in drug activities is behind bars and a considerable amount of drugs was taken off the streets.

However, legitimate questions arise following all the recent large-scale operations by the police. Are we really addressing the core problem? Will these arrests change anything in terms of drug use, drug addiction and the associated health and social harms? By supposedly winning a battle, are we really winning the ‘war on drugs’ in the long-term?

Together with Michael Linnell, who has spent 26 years working with Manchester-based drug services charity Lifeline, MM tries to investigate the different aspects of the problem, to look at the parties involved, the probable root causes and possible solutions.


The police – enforcing ineffective laws?

The police are there to enforce law and act upon community concerns. They have no saying in making laws and deciding on policies. However, inviting the public to witness arrests and raids might be seen by some as a step that goes too far.

“I have a problem with them inviting the media and members of the public for everything they do. I think it is a gross infringement of human rights for people who have not been convicted to sit there while they are being humiliated,” says Mr Linnell.

By causing market disruption and major fluctuations in drug impurity, drug raids tend to have more negative than positive effects on drug use and dependence.

“They [the police] can bust as many labs as they want, they can bust as many people selling drugs as they want, it doesn’t seem to have any major effect. And the effects it can have, can be quite negative. For instance, if you are busting cannabis, which is the easiest one to catch, as it smells considerably, you disrupt the market and as a result people move on to even more dangerous drugs,” explains Mr Linnell.

According to him, a market disruption in heroin can lead to considerable fluctuations in the impurity of drugs, which on the other hand can lead to people taking deadly overdoses.

If the police put the stoplight on a particular drug, another drug pops up and replaces it. In most cases, these new substances are ever more dangerous and harmful then the old ones. A chain reaction that never ends.

Are the police trying to enforce ineffective laws?


The drug laws – no deterrent

The drug laws in the UK prohibit the possession and supply of any drug classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The Government classification policy, which aims at deterring and warning people about the harm that different drugs cause, divides drugs into three classes – A, B and C. In 2006, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee found serious flaws in the Government drug classification policy and no evidence of its deterrent effect on drug users.

Mr Linnell is convinced that the current drug policy does not work. “If the aim of the drug laws is to stop people use drugs then it does not work,” he says. In terms of the impact on individuals, he thinks that drug laws have a very negative effect.

“If you are a young person and you are busted for possession of a drug, you could lose your place at university. It could mean that your chances of getting a job become worse and worse. I cannot see how that benefits anybody. If it does not work as a deterrent, it actually makes the lives of individuals worse and they are more likely to be involved in crimes,” he says.


The justice system – Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

According to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, there are two offences related to the possession of controlled drugs – possession and possession with intent to supply. However, the Act does not set any rules for the amount that people are caught with. Both charges foresee up to 12 months-long sentence depending on the class of drug involved.

As an expert, Mr Linnell has witnessed a number of court cases involving drugs.

“Somebody caught with 50 pills will be charged with possession, somebody caught with half a dozen of pills will be charged with possession with the intent to supply. The whole thing in the court is nonsense in terms of who is a dealer and who is not a dealer as purely giving pills to somebody else counts as dealing as well,” Mr Linnell says.

The people with the biggest problem, those using drugs that are considered to be the most dangerous, are being punished even more, which reduces their chances of rehabilitation.


The substances – a never-ending cycle

Another problem that adds to the equation is the continuous emergence of new substances. New ‘legal highs’ pop up as soon as others are banned or when market disruption causes impurity of the common drugs.

Mephedrone – a synthetic drug – emerged in the UK as a ‘legal high’ following an increasing impurity of ecstasy and cocaine. In its 2009/2010 Annual Report, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse confirmed this development. Mephedrone was included in the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2010. Since then, the use of it has gone up.

Another example is ketamine – street name Special K and Vitamin K. “Ketamine use is going up. It was a legal high up until 2006. You could buy it, you could purchase it, you could use it. They made it illegal in 2006 and use has doubled since then,” says Mr Linnell.

But Manchester Withington MP John Leech believes that in Manchester it is generally about ‘fire fighting’ as demand continues to fuel supply.

“I think we should look at making the assumption that a new substance is illegal until it has been deemed otherwise,” he said.


Decriminalization and legalisation – partly solution

In August 2011, Greece moved towards legalising drugs. Drug use will be fully decriminalised in the country, on the condition that it only harms the user. Can this be a solution for the UK?

“It is not that simple as saying let us legalise drugs, it will not solve the problem. If you legalise all drugs tomorrow, you would not have gangsters involved in selling it. But does not mean that you will not have problems with those drugs. You will probably have more people using, you will probably get more health problems,” Mr Linnell says.

According to him, counting on legalising drugs to solve the problem is a too simplistic solution. Dismissing legalising drugs is in his opinion also unrealistic.

“It is about how you have a control over the market. We know what happens when you ban a popular drug. You create a market where people are stigmatised, people have to do things illegal and you know that you create a criminal class, you know that you create huge business for the drug trade,” Mr Linnell says.

He supports the idea of decriminalising the possession of small amounts of drugs when there is no intention of supply and the harm is only for the user.

However, not everyone is keen to support the notion of decriminalising drugs in any way.

Liberal Democrat MP John Leech is against the notion, despite campaigns within his own party for a parliamentary motion to adopt policies similar to Greece and Portugal.

“Decriminalisation is not a good idea in my opinion. It doesn’t take drugs out of the illegal arena, and therefore doesn’t tackle any of the associated problems with people mixing with the drug dealing scum of the earth,” said Mr Leech.

In his opinion, decriminalising casual drug use would not work in the UK and is not a solution to the drug misuse. “I don’t believe that decriminalisation can be a solution because the production of those drugs is still carried out by a group of people determined to peddle misery with these and other illegal substances,” Mr Leech added.


The average drug user – victim of deprivation

Mr Linnell explains that most of the drug users that seek Lifeline’s support are poor people marginalised in society – they might be HIV-positive, have Hepatitis C or mental health problem. According to him, the average drug user is about 40 years old, would have served eleven prison sentences and would be homeless or sleeping on the streets.

“You could tick every box that you want in terms of everything that has gone wrong in their lives. They are using a drug that kills physical and emotional pain, that puts them in a bubble where they cannot feel the horrible outside world,” he says.

How do you fight drug misuse in the long-term? “Get rid of inequality in society, provide decent housing, jobs, employment prospects, make people feel as valued human beings and a part of the society, and you will get rid of most drug misuse problems.”


Established in 1971, Lifeline is a registered charity that provides a whole range of drug and alcohol services – recovery and peer mentoring, harm minimization, day programmes, prescribing and shared care, community detoxification services, criminal justice and prison initiatives, family work and services for young people.

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