Argus title : Britain:The staggering drunkard of all Europe
The usual carnage of drink and drug-fuelled disorder and violence has taken place over Christmas and the New Year holiday period.
But, the nation has come through it. At the threshold of a new year, Britain is still standing – stupefied, occasionally violent and with the bitterness of bile in its throat – the drunkard of Europe staggering at the continent’s kerbside.
The Observer has published a report from the Independent Drugs Monitoring Unit suggesting that the price of a sparse line of cocaine is now less than an expensive cup of coffee. The report, which was prepared for this week’s BBC2 programme, “If Drugs were Legal” revealed that the price of drugs has plummeted over the past 10 years as, nationally, customs officers and police have failed miserably to cut off the drug supply.
Police forces are so concerned that they have launched Operation Crackdown. This 3 month drive involves 32 police forces and aims to tackle heroin and cocaine dealers, while offering treatment to addicts.
The police are also expressing grave concern about Labour’s decision to change licensing regulations to facilitate 24 hour drinking. The Government is pressing ahead with this despite widespread concern about potential damage to the health of the nation and fears that public disorder and alcohol-related crime will increase.
The Royal College of Physicians says that there is already an “epidemic” of drink-fuelled violence and illness in Britain. Earlier this month, Professor Ian Gilmore, Chairman of the RCP’s alcohol committee, warned the Government that 1 in 4 people in Britain are now drinking at hazardous rates and that in the past 30 years there has been a 10 fold rise in rates of cirrhosis of the liver. He said: “To extend the licensing hours flies in the face of common sense as well as the evidence..”.
Licensing Minister, Richard Caborn has said that permitting 24 hour opening will have the effect of staggering closing times, thus avoiding rowdy drinkers spilling out at the same time. However, the government’s own research indicates that few establishments wish to open for 24 hours. They are likely to use the legislation to close at later times, putting pressure upon neighbouring competitors to close at the same time. Rowdy clubbers will spill out at a later hour.
The police have expressed serious concerns about the implications of policing disorderly clubbers who are consuming ever greater amounts of alcohol. Retiring Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens criticised the proposed changes, warning that police are already struggling to deal with the effects of consumption of “extraordinary amounts” of alcohol.
Sir John said: “The fact large groups of people will be coming out at 3am or 4am will mean we have to man up the streets to deliver a service to ensure these people behave,” .The police point to the experience of the Australian city Perth which, when it allowed bars to open just one hour later, experienced a significant increase in violence.
Ministers continue to express the faniciful view that if Britain gets rid of its ‘archaic’ drinking laws, its citizens will be able to drink ‘like Europeans’ – sensibly and with food.
This dream of moderate European-style use of alcohol leaves out of account a pre-existing culture of extreme alcohol abuse in Britain. This tends to encourage destructive use of alcohol linked to public and domestic disorder and violence.
The argument also ignores firm evidence that increased availability of addictive substances leads to increased use and higher levels of addiction. And the fact that young people are already drinking to excess.
Young people in Britain aged 16-24 are the heaviest drinkers with 50% of males and 42% of females drinking more than the daily recommended levels (Office for National Statistics, 2001). Alcohol use among younger children (11-15 years) has been rising, with average weekly consumption among those children in England who drink increasing from 5.3 units a week in 1990 to 10.4 units in 2000 (DOH, 2001).
The Labour Government’s inexplicable enthusiasm for unregulated drinking is hard to understand, other than by reference to its openness to lobbying by the wealthy and influential drinks industry.
Regrettably, there is every reason to believe that over the past 10 – 20 years the country has developed an equally destructive culture of illegal drug abuse. The Observer’s Mark Townsend and Vanessa Thorpe wrote “The price of ecstasy, heroin, crack, cocaine and cannabis has tumbled to a record low in the last year, as dealers pumped ever greater quantities onto the market encouraging hundreds of thousands of people to become regular users.”
Independent Drugs Monitoring Unit research shows that the price of ecstasy has fallen by 70% while the cost of a rock of highly addictive crack has fallen by more than a fifth to £10. Increasingly users are paying under £40 for a gram of cocaine. In Brighton, a bag of heroin weighing a quarter of a gram costs only £10.
The rewards for inner city dealers are enormous and Brighton offers rich pickings. As one experienced staff member in a local treatment centre said “Brighton has such a concentration of addicts that dealers can sell in an hour what would take more than a day to sell in London”.
Alarmingly, now that M.P.s have bowed to pressure to decriminalise cannabis, an aggressive campaign is beginning to legalise Class A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.
Those who argued for the legalisation of cannabis, usually did so on the basis that it was harmless and would free up the police to tackle the ‘real’ criminals who peddle hard drugs.
Now many of the same people are arguing that ‘policing of the illegal drug trade hasn’t worked’ and that all drugs should be legalised.
Increasingly, campaigners put a free-market economic argument for legalisation. They argue that the trade is ‘demand led’. Regulation will, they say, bring down prices, avoid exploitation of farmers in developing countries, make the product ‘safer’ and bring in substantial tax revenues to government. What they dishonestly fail to say is that legislation would vastly increase markets and demand.
It is clear is that there are vested ‘legitimate’ business interests – such as pharmaceutical companies and sections of the drinks and tobacco industries – which are likely to want a piece of the drugs profit pie.
Legalisation would increase profits by expanding markets and increasing consumption. It would bring in billions in tax revenues. But, it would not stop criminal trading in the commodity any more than the legal arms industry has stopped illegal arms trading.
Corrupt governments would remain corrupt. Small farmers would continue to be exploited. Some of the rich men controlling the industry might change, but the effect on consumers would be far worse. There would be more addicts, not less.
Overall, legalisation would deliver to governments increased stupefaction of citizens who might otherwise challenge their actions. In just such a way, governments over the centuries have controlled their people.
The question that we the people need to ask is not whether the trade should be legal, but if the trade is acceptable at all.
As I walk around Brighton I see the desperate, haunted faces of addicts, crippled by abscessed legs, staggering on crutches, slumped under thin coats in doorways, or begging passers by to take that ‘one last copy’ of the Big Issue.
I have no doubt that the trade which brings them to this is morally unacceptable.
In Britain, we already have a powerful alcohol industry which delivers the nation’s traditional drug of choice to the people, milking profits and tax revenues accordingly. There can be no reason to extend the supply of yet more addictive substances.
Other than to entrench the power of politicians. And line the pockets of rich men.