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British soldiers are killing more people in Scotland than in Afghanistan.

Are British soldiers killing more people in Scotland than in Afghanistan? An unintended consequence of our current “surge” in the war-torn country has been a massive increase in cultivation of the opium poppy in Helmand province. Afghanistan now provides 92% of Europe’s street heroin. Meanwhile back home there has been a 40% increase in
the death rate among Scottish addicts. I wonder if there could be a connection?

Nothing could better illustrate the failure of our “war against drugs” than the fact that even the British army seems to be making the problem worse. But anyone who knows anything about the drugs business, like former deputy chief constable Tom Wood, knows that the war was lost years ago. This is a thriving multinational industry; one of the fastest-growing and most profitable in the world. Its captains earn the kind of money that chief executives of private equity firms get out of bed for.

Drug barons have their own hedge funds, and they have been recycling their cash in the booming property markets of London, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Pretty soon they’ll be joining the Rotary Club and the chambers of commerce. Meanwhile their streetwise lieutenants turn places like Croxteth in Liverpool into war zones. The killer of Rhys Jones was a member of one of the drug gangs fighting for control of the streets.

These hooded pharmaceutical warriors carry guns as a matter of routine, and don’t fear the penalties because they know the police, and everyone else, has largely given up trying to catch them. The occasional high publicity drug seizure is what the police look for now, like last month’s record seizure of opium en route to Aberdeen. The estates of Scotland are left fending for themselves.

In a way, the drug gangs have themselves become a kind of delinquent police force. The cycle-hoodies with their guns are on the periphery of this chaos maintaining a kind of territorial order. It’s not an easy life, but if you are prepared to work at it, and have the bottle, it’s a living. Drugs have become a kind of job-creation programme of the dispossessed, a mainstay of the local economy in the estates. Scotland’s 50,000 addicts (plus all the addicts we don’t know about) constitute an entire social system based on addiction, with a kind of underworld work ethic. Since they need a thousand pounds a week to maintain their habit, addicts are responsible for 75% of property theft.

Lock ‘em up and throw away the key you say – well of course we do. Scottish jails are filled to overflowing – as we also learned last week – and most of the people in there are prostitutes, drug dealers, gang members, murderers, burglars fine defaulters who are connected to the industry in some way. And those that aren’t are soon introduced to drugs when they are incarcerated. This is because our jails are awash with hard drugs, often supplied by members of the prison staff acting in conjunction with legitimate visitors and others.

The young thug who has signed up on the estates will discover that prison is a pretty good finishing school – a university of crime, where he or she will learn about advanced techniques of coercion, money laundering, use of firearms, sources of supply, even accountancy. Yes, the disciplines of financial management are just as relevant to this multi-million pound industry as they are to the brewers or the pharmaceutical industries.

Back outside, they will use their expertise and contacts to spread the drugs further and wider into the community, enlisting children who are too young to be prosecuted as look outs and carriers who will themselves be encouraged to become users. For this is a unique trade in which the consumer is also the sales force – the young pusher has to sell drugs in order to feed his own habit. Which is why the drugs business spreads so rapidly, like an epidemic. It is also why, like cancer, it needs a radical solution.

And I don’t mean just law enforcement – the war on drugs has been as ineffective here as it has been in Afghanistan. The only way to destroy the drug trade is to destroy it as a business – use the laws of supply and demand. It is the exponential growth of consumption which is the key to the burgeoning drugs industry. Kill the demand, and you kill the supply.

This means two things: decriminalising hard drugs and devoting the kind of resources that presently go into the ‘war’ into rehabilitation. Addiction is an illness, so it should be treated that way, with the drugs available to addicts under prescription from the NHS. The users would come under the protection of health professionals who would use supply as a lever to get them into proper rehabilitation programmes.

As soon as users find they can get cheap and reliable narcotics from licensed outlets then the entire drugs industry will start to collapse. The hoodies will be out on the streets, as it were, forced to go to college or join the army or even get a job. The drug lords would become bankrupt, left demanding cheap loans from European central banks to bail them out (that’s a joke).

Of course, this involves an act of faith. We have to believe that junkies, most of them, want to get of drugs somehow, sometime. Very few want to spend their lives hooked up to this death machine suffering physical, financial and psychological decay. Given the opportunity we know from the research that the vast majority would eventually get clean given proper rehab.

But rehabilitation only works if the communities they return to afterwards are also clean. Very often it is reacquaintance with lifestyle that makes ex-junkies relapse. If the drug industry were wiped out there wouldn’t be the same temptation on every street corner, and the patient’s friends and relatives wouldn’t be luring them back into the world of addiction.

Yes, some may choose to remain on drugs, even to their own destruction – but in the end, we can’t stop people destroying themselves Some surprising people in history have been lifelong hard drug addicts. One was the antislavery campaigner, William Wilberforce, a devout Christian evangelical who disapproved of dancing and theatre, and yet took opium every day of his life. I’m not suggesting he should be a role model – we understand far better the risks of long term drug-abuse than in the early 19th Century – but the point is that it is a condition, a disease, that can be managed.

Anyway, what is the alternative? Existing policies are clearly not working, and the situation is rapidly running out of control. The only people who are benefiting are the Taliban and the traffickers. We need to apply the successful methods used against that other great addiction, smoking, to hard drugs. Management and control – above all, keeping it out of children’s hands and robbing the gangsters of their profits is the key. The battle against nicotine is being won, while the battle against heroin is being lost, and the dead are littering the streets of Scotland as well as Afghanistan.

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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