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Putting prisoners back on drugs and then taking away their children away when they are released is madness. There is a better way.

Some issues are so serious that it takes a comedian to tell the truth about them. Ben Elton didn’t tell the MSPs on Holyrood’s drug and alcohol committee anything they didn’t know last week. They are acutely awar that hard drug abuse is one of Scotland’s key social problems. So, why did they feign shock and surprise when he proposed a radical solution – the end of prohibition. It’s not as if they haven’t talked about it themselves

Well, it’s our old friend political acceptability. The voters would be appalled if they knew the truth – that far from combating hard drug-taking the present laws on drugs are actually promoting it. Politicians pretend to fight the war on drugs, even when organisations like the Strathclyde Police Federation tells them that it is a lost cause.

There are over fifty thousand known problem drug users in Scotland, and they’re getting younger – nearly thirty percent of pre-teens have been exposed to drugs, according to Glasgow University. The casualties now include eleven year old girls who are turning up to school stoned on heroin. The Scottish Executive is threatening to take up to 50,000 children of drug-abusing parents into care in what might be called the Pol Pot solution.

Up to three quarters of property crimes are thought to be drug-related and seventy percent of prisoners enter jail with drug problems. The jails simply become smack universities dominated by drugs barons. Of course, prisoners are offered help to get clean and some do. But the final idiocy of our system is that – as BBC Scotland revealed in 2002 – some prisoners who have broken their habit are being given hard drugs by the prison authorities to “retoxify” them before release, so that they aren’t killed by their first fix of high strength street heroin.

When we are actually putting prisoners back on drugs for their own safety, only to take their childen away from them when they get home, it is surely time to start asking whether there isn’t a better way. There is, but it needs economics not zero tolerance.

By allowing the criminal underworld to retain a monopoly on the supply of heroin and other addictive drugs we have allowed it to build a unique trade. Narcotics is the only business in the world selling a commodity which creates its own demand. The consumers become the salesmen as addicts turn into street pushers in order to finance their own habit. The result: a three hundred billion pound a year global industry which is spreading like a disease.

The underworld mystique of drugs, which the film Trainspotting” captured so well, is highly seductive to troubled young people in the West who find that, perversely, addiction gives their empty lives a kind of meaning. It is something to do. A chance to opt out the world of work, training, pensions, mortgages – all the numbing complexities of modern life.

To break into this two things are necessary: the market for drugs has to be tackled at source, and those afflicted by this disease must be prevented from spreading it. Tackling at source doesn’t mean bombing poppy fields in Afghanistan. Four years after the allied invasion of that country, it is producing more opium than ever. The market mechanism is far more devastating than high explosive. Take the money out of drugs and you take the criminals out too.

This requires an alternative supply regulated by the state. As soon as drug addicts leave prison they should be placed under medical supervision and provided with heroin under prescription, as was the case in the 1960s before the war on drugs began. We already dope them with methadone, so why not give them the related chemical, diamorphine, which is generally believed to have fewer side effects?

The deal would be that the NHS would provide reliable safe supply in registered premises provided the addict agreed to voluntary rehabilitation. Regulating heroin in this way would prevent the addict falling back into the cycle of dependency which turns them into criminals promoting the drug to finance their habit. It would wreck the business model of the drug industry which would see its monopoly ended and its sales teams dispersed.

As for the mystique – only by medicalising this problem can drug addiction be exposed for what it truly is: a debilitating psychological dependency rather than a romantic bohemian life-style choice. It is a condition, like diabetes, which can be managed – but is unpleasant, frequently painful and ultimately life-shortening. Addicts are like any other ill person – they need help. It’s not pleasant and it’s not cool.

Most people I speak to who have any knowledge of the problem believe that something like this must happen eventually. However, unlike Ben Elton, I would not immediately legalise all drugs. Non-medical use of heroin should still be a serious offence, and pushing a very serious one. This way the law would help the detoxification programme – as it should properly be called – by increasing the incentive for addicts to use state heroin rather than street heroin.

This way the abusers can be monitored and targetted by all means possible to help get them off. For in the end, it is up to the individual – you cannot force people to be well. Ultimately, if someone is determined to kill themselves, by drugs or other means, society cannot stop them. But society can protect our children from them.

Now, the obvious objection to all this is that the voters wouldn’t buy it. I mean, turning the government into a supplier of addictive drugs? Monstrous idea. Well, it might have been twenty years ago, but attitudes change. Drug use is part of popular culture, as Ben Elton pointed out in his talk, and everyone under the age of forty has either taken illegal substances or knows people who have. The clubbing scene runs on ecstacy and amphetamines – has done since the 1980s. Cocaine is everywhere – in politics, business, the arts. Cannabis is virtually legal already.

The present generation knows the score – that drugs aren’t going to go away and that pious hypocrisy is the last refuge of the politician. I bet half the MSPs in Holyrood have taken drugs. Which means this is the first generation of politicians which could finally demonstrate that the drugs really don’t work.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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