Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.
The papers might have been full over recent days of Amber Rudd’s inability to read a report from her own department about the impact of police cuts – but they missed the bigger picture. The Home Secretary is right to highlight the impact of drug gangs on our cities and young people, and on the rise of violent crime in the past twelve months – but she’s missed the obvious solution.
Time and time again I come across policy stories like this. Whether it’s on housing, where people complain of a housing crisis and the Tories say they’ll build more but ignore that it’s the Government’s constriction of supply that leads to higher rents and less disposable income. Or on encouraging more women to remain in employment after childbirth without looking at the costs of childcare or how government can best reduce it. All too often the debate doesn’t look beyond the obvious and the answers are unimaginative. We end up failing to solve the underlying problems.
Under Thatcher the Conservatives stood for simple and sellable principles: “My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.”
Simple principles give you wiggle room when it comes to actual policy. But they also help set the direction of what it is you’re trying to achieve. And we have to remember, always, that politics is about achieving things. In this case, I suggest to the Conservative Party that it might want to go back to that mantra of Maggie’s, in particular the final point: “Support the police.”
It follows that the key question is how you support them. Do you funnel money in? Do you grant them sweeping new powers? Do you devolve power to local forces so that managers manage? Or something more imaginative?
The best thing that the Conservative Party can do now to support the police in tackling gang violence is to legalise drugs. I also think that doing so would be a profoundly Conservative move.
At the moment we have a prohibition on certain substances. In fact, a lot of substances. Everything from cannabis and cocaine, to snus and MDMA. We don’t have bans on various strengths, what they’re used for, or who is using them. We just blanket ban. But at the same time we recognise the idiocy of recreating this approach for things like alcohol, sugar, or nicotine (despite the continuous pressure from busybody campaign groups).
The Home Office’s Serious Violence Strategy explained many problems of prohibition. It showcased how “grievances in illicit drug markets cannot be settled through legal channels, so participants may settle them violently. This can lead to escalation as dealers seek to portray themselves as excessively violent.” In fact, gangs use “violence…as a way of maintaining and increasing profits within drugs markets.”
When you go to Tesco and buy a bottle of wine, or to the corner shop for cigarettes, you don’t expect to be mugged and the odds are that you won’t be. But suppose you’re buying a substance that the state prohibits. You end up putting yourself in dangerous situations; whether that’s getting into a dealer’s car or going down dark alleyways. The state is unwittingly encouraging this behaviour. All of us know that people buy these things, and saying that they shouldn’t isn’t good enough. It’s deeply unconservative to put youngsters at greater risk of harm.
And it is young people who are being harmed. Not just those using illegal drugs, but those who are groomed by criminal gangs. Estimates by the Home Office suggest there are some 4,000 teenagers in London alone caught up in smuggling operations. The spillover effects are stark, too. Between 2014/15 and 2016/17, murders and manslaughters where either the victim or suspect was a drug user or dealer increased from 50 per cent to 57 per cent. We needn’t be suffering this scourge of violence. In the USA, evidence suggests that legalisation of medical marijuana saw violent crime drop in states that border Mexico. Washington State’s decision to legalise cannabis in November 2012 caused a reduction in thefts of between 13 per cent and 22 per cent.
If, like Thatcher, you believe that Conservatives should support the police and that it’s our duty to look after ourselves, and then also to look after our neighbour, we have to do what works and what is right. In this case, that’s legalisation.
The Black Market in drugs is worth around £5.3 billion to gangs in the UK. Let’s starve them of their cash. We can give it to a legal and regulated industry. Importantly, it removes power from gangs dealing in other drugs; in the USA, states with cannabis legalisation saw a 14.5 per cent reduction in any opiate use, and 24.8 per cent fewer opioid overdose deaths in states with medical cannabis laws between 1999 and 2010. Meanwhile, more restrictive policies on opioids led to higher numbers seeking black-market alternatives. The best way for the police to tackle this is to have to implement laws that are most harm-reducing.
It’ll be worth it. Adam Smith Institute research estimated cannabis legalisation alone could be worth £7 billion to the UK economy and up to £1.05 billion in tax revenue. There’s good reason to think this is a low-ball figure. Estimates of revenue in Colorado and in Washington were $70 million and $162 million respectively, but by the third year revenue reached $193.6 million and $314.8 million.
The party that grasps the nettle and frees up the market will reap the political dividend, just as the Liberals did in Canada. The Tories can cut crime, support the police and boost business. Frankly they should be more Conservative and end prohibition.