Global progressive policing
OPINION:

If we can accept the failing war on drugs is over, maybe we can win the peace

As a veteran of the lengthy stakeouts of heroin dealers, cultivation of informants, and the stitches, lost teeth and broken bones that come with the war on drugs, former Police Scotland superintendent Martin Gallagher believes it’s time for international agreement that the failed war should be over – and for co-operation and collaboration in putting together a more effective plan for peace.

The photograph above shows Police Inspector Jim Cast and I as we came away from a successful drugs raid during my time with Police Scotland, as Area Commander of Paisley.

Very questionable individuals are selling pre-rolled joints from cardboard boxes 10 feet from NYPD officers in Times Square. In one of the most heavily regulated (and taxed) countries in the world this situation isn’t going to stand.

I was born in 1972. The UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act is a year older than me, and I’ve now retired after three decades in policing. Despite all that has changed in my service the legislation has stood unaltered in chief; but how we deal with its consequences has, and fundamental change is obviously coming.

When we look overseas – not just to countries plagued with drug violence such as Mexico and Colombia, but also to developed and relatively safe sister nations such as Canada – we can see that attitudes are changing, and that through a ‘nudge’ effect fundamental, but largely unacknowledged, change is underway.

Having recently returned from a family holiday in New York City it is obvious things can’t remain as they are. Very questionable individuals are selling pre-rolled joints from cardboard boxes 10 feet from NYPD officers in Times Square. In one of the most heavily regulated (and taxed) countries in the world this situation isn’t going to stand. People who were arrested for drug-related charges should seek assistance from an attorney who specializes in drug manufacturing defense in Chambers County.

Rising tide

Change started in places like Portugal, where shooting galleries and the ‘public health’ approach became the norm. This spread with more and more countries allowing the personal use of cannabis, and exploration of its medicinal affects.

Now we have Canada experimenting with the decriminalisation of cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA in British Colombia against a backdrop of thousands of drug deaths.

Internationally, authorities want to try something new. Deaths from controlled drugs in my native Scotland are at truly horrific numbers, with Glasgow recently being dubbed the ‘cocaine capital of the world’ in the media, and the increase in injections by drug users contributing to the rise in HIV infections caused by the sharing of needles.

For almost 30 years I have undertook surveillance, crashed doors and oversaw million pound anti-drugs operations. My colleagues and I have caught the few while all too many who peddle the stuff have prospered.

An international criminal elite has been created in respect of the ‘management’ of the flow of controlled drugs, and although our efforts to combat this trade have been noble, they have obviously failed.

So, incrementally, we observe a shift away from strict enforcement measures towards a more proactive approach, advocating for the expansion and enhancement of “addiction and mental health disorder services.” This signals a constructive move towards addressing addiction as a health issue, an approach that emphasizes support and rehabilitation rather than solely punitive measures. However, it’s important to acknowledge that this perspective may not fully encompass the broader scope of drug-related challenges faced in policing contexts.

What about the dealers?

Think on Covid, a horrible pandemic that the best scientific minds combined to combat. Measures such as lockdowns were enforced, masks were worn, and vaccine programmes enacted.

So what does the public health approach say about these individuals, the dealers? Remove demand through a public health approach to addiction and they will simply pack up and move onto something else? Nonsense.

The pandemic may not be gone, but it is controlled – a success of a public health approach. But the fundamental difference between this approach and that we can take to controlled drugs is the dealers.

There was no mind controlling the spread of Covid (despite what conspiracy theorists may want you to believe). With controlled drugs there is, and they are among the greediest and most duplicitous minds the world has ever seen. Their methods of supply, of breaching borders and corrupting officials are insidious (and, if we are honest, ingenious).

So what does the public health approach say about these individuals, the dealers? Remove demand through a public health approach to addiction and they will simply pack up and move onto something else? Nonsense.

We are talking about criminal enterprises that have existed for decades – arguably centuries, if not maybe millennia. Without a thought-through strategic and international approach they are going nowhere.

The public health approach is admirable, but its ‘nudge’ effect is unfair to policing, which is being left attempting to enforce rules (or not, as the behaviour of the NYPD suggests) that it is obvious don’t work, and which are against the tide of development in this policy field; it is also piecemeal.

Initiatives like those in Canada are being made with no reference to other nations, nor to the strategic question that is looming over what happens to the drugs trade itself.

A potential future?

I want to ask you to imagine a situation where a consensus among international leaders is reached that the approach to controlled drugs trade is going to have to change. There is agreement that the ‘war’ is over.

Now, I know it is a stretch to imagine this, but there was agreement we needed a war in the first place, so maybe – just maybe – agreement on this is possible.

Such an agreement would free countries to take this much-vaunted public health approach to addiction, and remove law enforcement from the equation. But it wouldn’t remove the dealers. Now we enter uncharted waters… or do we?

As you come on this intellectual journey with me, please remember that I’ve been the guy lying in a disused warehouse waiting for a week to get a photograph of an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire who was flooding my city with heroin.

Many criminals throughout history have suddenly found themselves ‘rehabilitated’ through changing attitudes. The closest large scale analogy I can think of to a potential change to our attitude to drugs is that of the Vikings. They went from pillagers, to settlers and ultimately became aristocracy (William the Conqueror was a Viking descendent, along with his Norman brethren).

So, over time communities can and do change in perception, and from the most violent of starting points become ‘legitimised’. Could this eventually happen with those involved in drugs?

As you come on this intellectual journey with me, please remember that I’ve been the guy lying in a disused warehouse waiting for a week to get a photograph of an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire who was flooding my city with heroin.

I’ve spent months away from home chasing down ‘connections’ in cities that meant a long time away from my family; I’ve cultivated informants who risked everything to tell me who was supplying their housing scheme; I’ve fought in this war, with lost teeth, stitches sewn into me and broken bones on my account.

If ‘legitimisation’ continues, and everything indicates it will, what might draw the dealers into this tent of change, and not leave them outside in the cold? Much as I despise them and everything that makes them tick, if they are left behind all we are doing is storing up problems for the future.

Time to offer a way out

When prohibition ended in the US, the criminal network that had been created to supply alcohol simply repurposed and moved into the controlled drugs sphere. The move away from criminalisation that the repeal of prohibition engendered arguably created the very problem we face today.

With no legitimate means of making money the ‘dealers’ simply switched commodity. The then relatively small-scale international drugs trade boomed. It was in the criminals’ financial interests to move to a new market.

If we push people out of the drugs trade then the issue of the potential of criminal divergence to new markets has to be tackled head on, so it doesn’t happen again. We can’t allow history to repeat itself.

It hurts to write this, but if we don’t at least entertain the possibility of an offer of some form of ‘out’ for those in the trade they won’t participate. They will instead find ways to subvert the move away from criminalisation, or will move into other illegal commodities.

We have to start to imagine how this might look. Could we see some form of ‘truth and reconciliation’ programme where these dealers are ‘legitimised’? Maybe this is where the articulated militarisation of the ‘drugs conflict’ – the war on drugs – previously is (for once) a boon, as we could conceptualise this change as being like a post-conflict transformation to peace.

To bring the dealers into the world of the legitimate needs to be (to a degree to be determined) ultimately in some way to their benefit. If it isn’t, they won’t participate.

It hurts to write this, but if we don’t at least entertain the possibility of an offer of some form of ‘out’ for those in the trade they won’t participate. They will instead find ways to subvert the move away from criminalisation, or will move into other illegal commodities (although, being far from naive it is possible many may do this anyway).

Looking again to historical analogy, the success of the Allies in the aftermath of World War II was in a steady programme of ‘de-Nazification’, where however distasteful it may have been, the members of the Nazi parties in Axis countries were rehabilitated, with the leaders punished while the majority of followers were led to see the error of their ways and societies continued to function and recover from the War.

When you take the alternative approach, as happened in Iraq with former members of the Ba’ath party who were all excluded from civic society, a countrywide insurgency followed.

The former worked, the latter did not: however unpleasant, in a ‘post-conflict’ situation the majority of the ‘enemy’ must be re-integrated for society to function.

Dividend

And what of this dividend from the drug conflict end? Why, there could be no finer way to see it spent than adopt a wholesale programme of addiction rehabilitation and see the funds amassed from the drugs trade pay for the recovery from it.

Fifty years of enforcement hasn’t stopped the demand; if anything it has made it worse. Isn’t it about time we looked for an adult solution for the better of society?

Sure, we would still have drugs out there, but these would be tested and their content regulated. Taxation of the trade would pay for the treatment that follows, in much the same way that taxation on tobacco contributes (albeit indirectly) to NHS cancer treatments today.

People are going to take drugs. Fifty years of enforcement hasn’t stopped the demand; if anything it has made it worse. Isn’t it about time we looked for an adult solution for the better of society?

The ‘death of a thousand cuts’ approach to deregulation we are seeing across the world isn’t working. It is sending out confusing messages to law enforcement, health services and the public. Only through international consensus and action will positive change be made.

I don’t want to see the dealers rewarded for their trade, but if we don’t grasp the nettle and bring them with us we are just creating a new problem for the next generation.

Is it time to put down the battering rams and accept the war is over? Maybe this is the time to be bold, and win the peace.


8 Responses to “If we can accept the failing war on drugs is over, maybe we can win the peace”

  1. spencer matthews says:

    Thanks for the interesting read. I’m not sure this comment is strictly accurate “but there was agreement we needed a war in the first place” – what little I know (and I accept my limitations) I think this agreement was as the result of pressure from powerful counties, and as a reaction to social change. I agree that people will always take drugs – it’s just the question of what society decides is ‘permissible’ and the costs (financial and non-financial) of those choices.

  2. Mootworthy says:

    First, I’m far from persuaded that many historians will agree that William I is an exemplar of ‘rehabilitation’: his series of ruthless military campaigns during the winter of 1069-70 (‘the Harrying of the North’) suggest otherwise. And the notion that individuals of noble birth, or those bearing hereditary or acquired titles are less likely to resort to large-scale plundering, corruption and other forms of exploitation runs against the grain of history.

    On a more serious note, it isn’t clear to me what the author is proposing or where he stands on key issues such as ‘public health approaches’, partial or full legalisation, decriminalisation or ‘depenalisation’. Moreover, I think some of the general comments relating to the MDA and ‘prohibition’ are questionable.

    As a starting point, I would stress that reading a copy of the MDA in its original or even amended form tells you very little about past or present UK drug policies and practices. For example, there are no references in the Act to out-of-court disposals, diversion schemes, liberal prescribing policies (think supervised injectable heroin, methadone maintenance programmes, , or constraints on police powers of search, arrest and detention. And yet, these policies and safeguards are in place.

    The fact is that our past and present drug control policies and practices have been largely shaped by other Acts (e.g. Schedule 1A treatment orders made under the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973), Ministerial advice, reports from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), case law, pilot projects, and research findings regarding the effectiveness of drug treatment and harm reduction programmes and interventions.

    Changes have been made to the MDA 1971 which mitigate some of the legal harms created by the Act: e.g. the amendments made by the Criminal Law Act 1977 which reduced penalties for possession offences. In addition, some changes have helped to support public health ambitions relating to HIV and hepatitis i.e. the statutory exemption in s. 9A covering the supply of hypodermic syringes, and the subsequent amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 (Reg. 6A) which lists a range of articles which may be lawfully supplied to drug misusers by authorised persons.

    In truth, since 1973 when the MDA came fully into force, the overall trend of drug control laws, policies and practices as they relate to minor drug offences, has been one of de-escalation. And the UK has never waged ‘war’ on drug misusing offenders.

    Like the author, I also spent much of my career investigating drug offences with varying degrees of success. Acting in the public interest and in accordance with my statutory duties and responsibilities I created harms: i.e. State authorised legal harms – arrests, prosecutions, forfeiture/confiscation orders – but I also reduced harms (e.g. promoted and helped set up drug diversion schemes, cautioned drug offenders, and on many occasions helped bring about reduced sentences for drug traffickers).

    As a former drug squad officer and Staff Officer to the ACPO Drugs Sub-committee, I supported and promoted public health policies: e.g. needle and syringe programmes and opioid agonist therapy. Moreover, I believe that public health approaches can – and do – happily co-exist with ‘traditional’ enforcement policies. Indeed, generally speaking, the effectiveness of public health policies are largely determined by the vigorous enforcement of attendant criminal and civil laws.

    • Martin Gallagher says:

      Thanks for your comments.

      I think we’ll have to disagree. Your position “I believe that public health approaches can – and do – happily co-exist with ‘traditional’ enforcement policies” for me just doesn’t reflect reality.

      We have incredibly high drugs death figures, substances are almost freely available, a general whittling away of enforcement resource and activity has been taking place coupled to overwhelmed drug treatment services.

      The point of my article is not to look anymore at (failed) tactical approaches but to read the strategic situation that is developing internationally that enforcement is done, get ahead of this and take part in shaping what a post enforcement future might look like.

      Like you I invested a lot of my career in combatting the drugs trade. We lost. I know it hurts, but take a walk around any major town or city in the UK and it is obvious.

  3. Mootworthy says:

    Mr Gallagher,

    Thank you for replying. I’m not being deliberately obtuse, but I’m still far from clear what you are proposing.

    Given your comments that ‘enforcement is done’ and the reference to ‘post enforcement future’ are you suggesting that use and possession offences under the MDA are repealed? Are you suggesting that drug trafficking offences under the MDA are also repealed? What about the relevant sections under the CEMA 1979? Or ‘precursors’ – CJ(IC)A 1990? Or the Medicines Act 1968? Or the PSA 2016? If you are, then why not make this clear?

    For the record, I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea that ‘we lost [the war on drugs]’ anymore than I would accept the notion that we lost the war on theft, fraud, assault or any other ‘volume’ crime. In the context of British drug control policy, ‘war on drugs’ references are totally spurious and incapable of withstanding serious scrutiny.

    As to your challenge regarding my point that public health approaches happily co-exist with traditional enforcement policies and practices, are you denying the existence of hundreds – perhaps as many as 2,000+ – of needle and syringe programmes which operate with the full support of senior and front-line officers, the measured approach forces take when dealing with offences under s. 139 of the CJA 1988: possession of sharp or pointed (i.e. sterile hypodermic syringes complete with needles) in public places, or drug referral schemes, or police orders reversing the practice of routinely seizing condoms in cases involving sex workers, or custody officers handing packs of sterile injecting equipment to drug injectors on their release from police detention? And what about officers carrying Naloxone? Isn’t this a fine example of public health and law enforcement policies coming together to protect the lives of drug users?

    Your point regarding drug overdose deaths is interesting. To a large degree ‘we’ means Scotland – where drug overdose deaths are among the highest in Western Europe. And yet the law and policies are the same in Scotland as they are for the rest of the UK. So, what’s behind the disparity in data? You will recall the mid-late 1980s when Edinburgh was known as the ‘AIDS capital of Europe’ – HIV infection rates around 7 times the national average. Again, why? The Scottish authorities were working under the same legislation, public health policies, and had access to the science and research. So what went wrong? Perhaps the problem was exasperated by the ‘ruthless policing’ of the Scottish police forces? Thankfully, the situation in Scotland is very different today – but the MDA is still in force and drug offenders are still arrested, and in appropriate cases, prosecuted.

    Have you given much thought to the data on drug-related deaths provided by countries like Bulgaria and Romania? When did you last look at the recent trend for drug overdose deaths in Portugal or the HIV rates among injecting drug users in that country compared to the UK? The detail really does matter.

    I’m all for new ideas – but it’s important that they are clearly articulated.

  4. Martin G says:

    Thanks again for the comments.

    They made me re-read my article. As far as I can see I am unambiguous.

    “we would still have drugs out there, but these would be tested and their content regulated.”

    The thrust of the article is decriminalisation is coming, we should get ahead of this, and we need to consider the impact on the drug dealing fraternity.

    I really do hope I don’t come across as ‘trashing’ law enforcement endeavours. This couldn’t be further from what I intend. We tried. We failed.

    In terms of public health my article references this approach cannot contend with the dealers, and their future. I hope this is now clear.

    I appreciate you have no doubt invested heavily in tactical approaches to drugs problems, as have colleagues both in the UK and internationally. Though we’ll intentioned these have resulted in strategic failure. You mention drugs in the same vein as theft, fraud and assault. These crimes of violence and dishonesty and have been beyond the pale and sanctioned since civilisations first emerged. Drugs prohibition has not. This was a fairly modern choice, and one where we are going to need a paradigm shift in conceptualisation to move thinking, away from fraud and theft into the realm of an unfortunate societal choice, not a criminal one.

    Maybe you disagree with me on the emerging international direction of travel and of our strategic failure. Can you entertain the possibility I might be right? If I’m not, I’d love to read an article on where you see things going over the next 10 years. I’m always up for changing my mind, as I have on the drugs issue as things stand.

    Dr. Martin Gallagher

  5. Mootworthy says:

    Dr Gallagher,

    Thanks again for replying to my comments.

    Given your article references ‘decriminalisation’ on only one occasion in the context of British Columbia – and you don’t sound particularly enamoured – I’m sure you’ll understand why I was asking you to clarify your position. In fairness, you reference the Portuguese model but this only concerns the acquisition and possession of possession of controlled drugs under specified amounts. You, however, seem to be suggesting a more radical approach: “enforcement is done” and “post-enforcement future” hints at partial or full legalisation.

    I certainly don’t agree with your summation of the history of drug control: see Loughnan, A. (2012) ‘Since the days of Noah’: the Law of Intoxicated Offending, Chapter 7, in his book Manifest Madness: Mental Incapacity in the Criminal Law. It’s worth recalling that James I imposed the first tax on tobacco in 1604 – having anticipated lung cancer and restrictions on the sale, import and use of tobacco continue. The restrictions on the sale and use of alcohol are also longstanding.

    In Britain there has been statutory controls on the production, sale and storage of drugs (i.e. ‘mingled medicines’, ‘fatal facilities’ and ‘narcotic nostrums’) since the 18th and 19th centuries. Controls on the sale of arsenic and prussic acid were first introduced in Manchester in 1844 on the back of concerns over accidental poisonings, suicides (a crime at the time) and murders.

    Our drug laws were expanded to take account of the advancements in chemistry: the production of diamorphine, cocaine, LSD etc. and concerns over addiction and drug-related crime. ‘Modern’ controls date back to 1916 (DORA 1914 and the Regulations made thereunder).

    In the same way, the development of scientific techniques which allowed us to harness electricity required a new law which penalized the ‘theft’ (abstraction) of electricity: (see s. 23 (stealing electricity) Electric Lighting Act 1882 (a forerunner of s. 13 of the Theft Act 1968). And of course, we now have laws concerning the misuse of computers and data protection. So, I don’t agree that our drug laws are outliers.

    In terms of ‘decriminalisation’ and the notion of ‘public health approaches’ I certainly agree with you that this is ‘the direction of travel’ – but l do fear that the benefits of current models of decriminalisation are being overstated by many reformists.

    For the record, I favour ‘depenalisation’ – a range of OOCDs – particularly when linked to prevention, treatment and care programmes. OOCDs are politically more palatable then decriminalisation (at least in the UK) and are easily introduced/modified to take account of emerging trends and other evidence regarding “what works, what doesn’t and what looks promising”.

    Like you, I’ve also operated at the strategic level and I’ve been a champion of ‘harm reduction’ since the late 1980s and from 2001 to 2011 the British State and UNODC paid me to promote harm reduction policies and practices and alternatives to arrest, prosecution and incarceration in Kenya, Russia, Belarus, Vietnam, and other countries.

    In answer to your question regarding my entertaining the idea that you might be ‘right’ I don’t have anything like the detail I would need to make an informed judgement but I’d be very happy to see a second article where you flesh out your proposals.

    Regards

    Geoff Monaghan

  6. rh533 says:

    It’s interesting to see a genuine debate between experts on this subject.
    As a non-expert, I note that in the UK according to ONSS, about 10% of people used cannabis and 3% had used Class A drugs in the last year.
    Whilst that’s a lot of people, the flip side is that 90% hadn’t used cannabis and 97% hadn’t used Class A drugs. This is very far from the war on drugs, or whatever term you prefer, being lost. Drugs are commonly described as being ‘everywhere’ and in a sense this is true, but you need positive effort/motivation to obtain them. There is far more potential to make the situation worse than there is to make it better.
    That’s why it seems to me that we need to be very clear about what decriminalisation means. If it means for example, availability on prescription, some of the harms might be reduced but you have ask whether there would be any effect on the criminal markets. If on the other hand we advocate putting currently controlled drugs on open sale, use will increase in line with availability since the implicit message is that use is ok and potential users would need to make less effort to obtain them.
    Personally I wouldn’t want to be the first country to take that risk but would rely heavily on the experience of other countries before passing final judgement.

    • Martin Gallagher says:

      Thanks for the comment.

      I’m not set on how things change, my real starting point is one of pragmatism. The approach of the last 50 years hasn’t worked, there appears to be a steady move away from enforcement, so what next?

      I hope you have a chance to read my follow up on the site.

      Like you I’m hoping we can start talking about this. The more the conversation gets going, the more the ongoing problems will be acknowledged and hopefully some form of coalition of the willing to see through some type of change will start to emerge, or strengthen. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but if I’ve assisted in any way in getting things moving along from a very poor current situation I’ll be a happy man.

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