Victoria Borwick is the former Conservative MP for Kensington and was the Deputy Mayor of London to Boris Johnson from 2012 to 2015.
The rise in knife crime and violent crime, particularly amongst young people, has heightened the debate about drugs. However, I am not one of those hand-wringers who think the answer to knife crime and drug wars is the legalisation of drugs. What do you think the drug dealers would go off and do? Sit around? This is very unlikely. This is a problem that must be tackled from all sides with unity and purpose. This is about investing in our young people.
Why do young people deal in drugs? Because they want to fund their lifestyle – they seek the protection and fake friendship of gang life, and carry a knife for “safety”. This is a very serious issue and has disastrous consequences for us as a society. This is not the time for pointing the finger at just one cause.
First, we must re-examine our education system so it is not just about passing “final year” exams, but about training people to give them the skills to get a job. If you have a job and steady income you are far less likely to get involved in crime. For too long, we have under-invested in skills and training programmes – they have been a poorly funded add-on and not a serious career path.
Yes, there is greater investment now, but there are many years to make up for. These opportunities and options should start far earlier in children’s lives, enabling a twin-track of skills training – IT skills, engineering skills, advanced robotics, and AI as well as practical skills in electrical engineering and all the construction trades. There is a reason that so many employers on building sites take young people from overseas: they have started their practical skills and engineering training far younger than we offer here in the UK.
Young people need role models, and need to know and have evidence that there is a better life than taking drugs, dealing drugs and carrying knives. Sometimes there is no real boundary between the lives of the victims and the background of the perpetrators. This is not just a policing matter; voluntary organisations, young people’s groups, cadets, schools, families and the wider community all have a role to play. Schools should open their premises in the evenings so they can be used by local voluntary groups for sports and opportunities to learn and relax in a safe environment. Councils can be the co-ordinators, the convenors that bring together all the local provision, to focus on and track those who need the greatest help.
Drug takers often descend into other criminal activity – something legalisation would not stop, as drugs would still have to be paid for even from “approved stores”. Additionally, addicts would still crave different combinations and stronger variations which dealers will be all too happy to supply. Evidence from the USA suggests that black market operators will simply adapt rather than disappear.
A report from the Centre for Social Justice at the end of last year found that legalisation would probably drive a million young people to take drugs, so why on earth would we want to inflict this on our society, on our communities? This is a time for positive help and investment in our future, in the next generation – not make it easier for them to become addicts and criminals.
I find it abhorrent that given what we know about the dangers of smoking and alcohol we should consider softening our approach to drugs and encourage the next generation to think it was “safe” despite all the evidence to the contrary – especially as tobacco was once considered “healthy” and “medicinal”. Look at the change in attitudes to smoking during one generation, it is no longer the personification of style and we now know it leads to poor health, asthma, cancer – and, frankly, it smells awful.
As the previous Deputy Mayor of London, I have been out with the ambulance service on some of those very busy weekends in holiday times, and I have seen for myself the dangers of too much drink, of being abandoned by your friends and how lonely and disorientated those high on drugs can be, totally unable to care for themselves.
Evidence from Canada and Colorado shows that drug liberalisation has not significantly reduced drug use, in fact, there has often been a spike as people think it must be OK because it is now legal.
How can policy makers think this is the responsible thing to do? This is an important public health issue and it needs to be approached in the same way, just as we teach about the dangers of smoking and alcohol we need to be very clear about the damage of inappropriate drug use.