Photo by Christopher Furlong

Throwing good money after bad

Spare us the spectacle of incredible claims to reform criminal drug-users by showering them with more public sector love

Artillery Row

The Government’s new drugs strategy is a veritable sheep in wolf’s clothing. On the one hand its launch was illustrated by footage of the Prime Minister out with police on a raid, watching officers kick in the front door of a suspected drugs dealing den. There was also a pledge to spend £300m to shut down 2,000 “county lines” gangs.

The ten-year plan treats drug abuse primarily as a chronic health condition

On the other hand, nearly £800m of new money has been allocated to a massive new drugs rehabilitation initiative across England. It intends to wean off their poisons the 300,000 addicts estimated to carry out half of all shop thefts, robberies and burglaries.

Local authorities all over the country are being enlisted to run new treatment and recovery programmes as part of a ten-year plan. It aims to break the cycle of addiction by treating drug abuse primarily as a chronic health condition rather than a matter for law enforcement.

Better housing support and employment schemes will also be offered to help people “break the cycle of drug use”. Nearly £10m will be spent on a so-called “Tough Consequences” scheme under which casual drug users are dealt with out of court what we used to call in old-fashioned parlance getting “let off”.

The Government’s strategy set a series of ambitious targets such as preventing 750,000 drug-related crimes and delivering 54,000 new high-quality treatment places by 2024/25. According to the very well-intentioned Government minister Kit Malthouse, it amounts to a “blueprint for driving drugs out of our cities, towns and villages”.

A naïve division between evil dealers and exploited users will be the lode star for government policy

The broadcast media seemed delighted by all this, with the BBC’s influential Home editor Mark Easton purring that “spending more than twice as much on treatment and recovery than on criminal interventions” amounted to “quiet work to help those with an addiction get their lives back on track”.

TV news reports on the BBC and elsewhere featured “former addicts” arguing strongly in favour of expensive new facilities and programmes for those still chasing dragons, finding crack distinctly moreish and all the rest of it.

It does not seem much of a stretch to suppose that some of these reformed characters will find gainful employment running outreach and counselling schemes, as has happened with various “ex-gang members” on some of our grimmer urban housing estates.

So yet again the elite liberals and reformers have won out over vulgar public opinion. A naïve division between evil dealers and exploited users will be the lode star for government policy. There will be no recognition that many users get involved in dealing to fund their habits or that lots of junkies oops, banned word alert have deliberately chosen a life pleasure-seeking in the demi-monde over crushing respectability, hard work and deferred gratification.

The lower penalties for theft will lead to more thieving.

The conceit that tens of thousands of habitual criminals can be turned into upright citizens via the application of carrots rather than sticks (please God though, not Camberwell carrots) is to be tested to destruction at vast public expense.

Call me a cynic by all means, but here is how I expect events to unfold: the kid gloves treatment being extended to drug-users will encourage more people to do drugs, especially in deprived communities where staying on the straight and narrow is hardest. The state will be seen as doing more for the local criminal classes than for those dedicated to clean-living in difficult circumstances.

The lower penalties for theft will lead to more thieving. Many of the expensive new council-administered programmes will be ineffectively managed  while few will be rigorously monitored to see how they are doing at delivering actual lasting rehabilitation. Some will even become infiltrated by people who still take the occasional puff and sell a bit on the side. Professional dealers will start earmarking these premises as places from where a ready stream of customers will emerge, as eager to re-embrace their chosen sin as any inveterate whoremonger who has just obtained absolution by saying his Hail Marys.

The idea of many illegal drug-users being persuaded to turn over new leaves or make fresh starts via extended exposure to local authority hand-holders on gold-plated pensions will gradually come to seem ridiculous, as it fails to happen for year after year.

Almost nobody does drugs in Singapore where there are death penalties

Just as now, some drug-users will simply grow out of it and make a motivated choice to desist while most will continue to talk a good game in therapy sessions because they will understand it is the key to obtaining soft justice on the occasions when they fall foul of the law. “My client has been regularly attending treatment sessions in an attempt to address the dependency which underlies his offending behaviour, your honour.”

If we really are determined to see a largely drugs-free society, there is no secret about how to get there. Almost nobody does drugs in Singapore where death penalties for traffickers, long mandatory prison terms and agonising caning sessions have all proved remarkably effective at disincentivising the trade.

That’s probably too draconian a blend for your blood and it certainly is for mine. But please, can we be spared the spectacle of well-intentioned dolts making utterly incredible claims about what is likely to be achieved by showing more public sector love to criminal drug-users.

Boris Johnson once objected to the public realm “spaffing money up the wall”. Now he is busy dreaming up new ways for it to do so.

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