Frank Young is a Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.
Drugs legalisation is a cockroach policy that is almost impossible to kill. Even now, as the country tries to contain a pandemic, there are calls in the press from Left and Right to legalise cannabis: rather like the arguments over grammar schools, it is a debate that seemingly will never die.
Dealers themselves are dismissive of calls to legalise drugs – as we found out when we spoke to some about arguments put up by political types for and against legalisation. Today, we publish an account of what they told us: A raw deal: drug-dealing discussed with lived experience.
Our ex-pushers told us, very clearly, that like any entrepreneur they would simply undercut the (heavily taxed) market in any newly legal drugs. One former dealer told us that if high street chemists started selling legal cannabis, they would “either match that price or do better than that price”.
The supply of “recreational” drugs is immune to lockdowns, as a recent study of drug supply found. Ordering recreational drugs is now as easy as ordering a pizza. This isn’t just an issue that is happening somewhere else. The chances are that there will be drugs whizzing around a street near you, impervious to class or any other sort of social stratification.
One ex-dealer told us about dealing Xanax, a common anti-anxiety drug, to university students: “a lot of these people that I was selling drugs to in university, I was just their doctor”.
We were told about, in their words, “middle-class” students, who didn’t think they were buying drugs because they were getting brand name PfizerXanax at a fraction of the price of a high street pharmacist. These are the sons and daughters of our “ethical” consumers of ‘Cali’ cocaine.
What our conversations really taught us is how our debate in this area is increasingly out of date: the political class will forever discuss laws they can tinker with, but what we need to really talk about is how we provide support to help guide people away from the dangerous temptations of criminal activity. Our ex-dealers were caught in a trap just as bad as any poverty trap.
When you speak to young men ‘trapped’ in a cycle of drug dealing and violent offending, the idea of parallel societies is a constant theme. Our conversations with ex-drug dealers shed a spotlight on career routes in gang life and the drug trade.
They were drawn in by the easy cash, which then hooked them into a lifestyle of small-time dealing. Tougher policing through newly announced Serious Violence Reduction Orders will help, giving the police the chance to step in when they can see drugs all around them, making dealing in the spotlight a much less attractive proposition. But good ol’ Tory tough-on-crime is not enough by itself.
The solution to these problems is not endless debate over regulation, but to get serious about engaging early and scaling up tried and tested programmes focused on young people heading for the clink.
Take Josh Babarinde, who was awarded the OBE recently. Josh set up Cracked It: he literally went door to door to encourage young people to join his social enterprise mending phone screens and supporting ex-offenders into work.
For those much further down the path, charities like Key4Life who work with offenders stuck in prison and through mentoring and education put them on a path tolegitimate employment. A year after release,14 per cent of those who went through the Key4Life programme have re-offended, compared to a national proven re-offending rate of 64 per cent. There are plenty of charities stepping in to do this work: what we could do with now is a national effort to scale up what they do, bottle it and do more.
If you want to kill supply, you have to kill demand, so get in early with young users – if you’re found with small quantities, you should be sent on a drug awareness course, like a speed awareness course, to learn about the damage you are doing.
This should be used as a funnel to scale up these charities – and pick out the young people heading to the clink, or worse. Police Commissioners should be given a proper role to step in and deliver these programmes, and an innovation fund for commissioners should be set up, making them proper laboratories for fighting crime.
The next time someone tries to peddle legalisation to you, just say no – and ask them what they would do instead about the young men caught up in ‘the trap’, from tougher street policing to backing charities stepping in to change lives for good.