16 MARCH 2002, Page 20


Legalising drugs will help the well-to-do,

says Katie Grant, but drive the poor

deeper into despair

BRUCE ANDERSON called in last week's Spectator for the legalisation of drugs, and his remarks were timely. In Scotland, Dr Richard Simpson, the Holyrood Parliament's deputy justice minister, has echoed Mr Anderson's sentiments, if not his solution, by drawing an official line under Scotland's 30-year war on drugs. 'The only time you will hear me use terms such as "War On Drugs" or "Just Say No" is to denigrate them,' he said. When Bruce Anderson, a glowering bull mastiff on a short fuse, and Richard Simpson, a gentle bearded collie with herding instincts, find common ground, something is clearly up. What is up, of course, is that both men have been upset by the images of the black and bloated body of a pretty girl killed by a bad heroin fix.

Doubtless both Mr Anderson and Dr Simpson — and the LibDems, who have just called for the legalisation of cannabis — will be congratulated by professionals who are fond of a decent spliff, toss down the odd E and have no wish to see their experimenting children turned into criminals. But their contributions, while worthy, ignore the great big difficulty that lies at the very heart of the drugs debate. Drugs are a class issue. If everyone were as clever and well-to-do as Mr Anderson. or as educated and thoughtful as Dr Simpson, we could legalise drugs tomorrow. Everybody would have an equal opportunity to take them or to resist them. The libertarian argument that forms the core of the legalisers' camp — that the state has no place in regulating the private behaviour of individuals — would be unanswerable.

Yet while flawless logic and consistency of approach — the academically unimpeachable grounds on which Mr Anderson stands — are splendidly appealing to those sneaking a post-glass-of-claret snooze behind copies of the Times in the Reform Club, they look quite different if you are sitting on a grimy copy of the Daily Record eating a poke of soggy chips in a bleak, rubbish-strewn stairwell on one of Glasgow's desolate peripheral estates. A mother watching her newly literate four-year-old spelling out 'fuck the Pope' or 'Lesley's a f— c—' from the graffiti which, along with used syringes and the odd condom, decorate the slide in the derelict park, will not be persuaded by Mr Anderson's solution to the drugs problem.

To many of the parents on Scotland's sink estates, the fact that the law does not work is irrelevant. To them, it is the one thing that stands between their children and the pusher. Take away the sanction of the law and they know, with almost religious certainty, that the drugs problem will get worse. To these women, legalisation is the path to hell, and they are already halfway there. They may well be open to debates about how the petty criminality that funds a drug habit should be dealt with, but they see debates about legalisation as being the middle classes at play.

Groups such as Mothers Against Drugs laugh when you say that at least the supply of heroin will be controlled if it is legalised. Controlled for whom, they ask? For the middle classes, perhaps, who would go to official outlets to get their fix. But the plight of the socially excluded, the underclasses, those whose chaotic lives suit street dealers perfectly, would be no better off. Drug barons, unwilling to give up without a fight, would simply undercut the official outlets using the existing networks. A £1 coin may not be much to a doctor's daughter, but it is a lot to a 22-year-old on benefit. If using cheaper heroin meant taking a bit of a risk, they would think the risk worth taking, just as they go to a loan shark instead of to the bank.

This is how, in socially deprived communities, the current debates about drugs are seen: as the middle classes taking care of their own. So long as middle-class youngsters can take heroin, cocaine or Ecstasy safely (E-safety kits are very much in vogue at the moment), then the drugs problem will be deemed to have been solved, If the risks to their children posed by impure heroin are removed, Tory grandees and New Labour groupies will be satisfied — particularly since, if the children of the well-to-do fall into addiction, they can always be sent by their parents into private rehab centres. Addicts from the underclasses will, of course, not be so lucky. Places on state-funded rehab or detox courses are few and far between.

Of course there is an argument that legalising drugs would cut crime. But is this not just a fudge that allows politicians and society, on the back of blissfully decreasing crime statistics, to ignore with clear consciences the underlying causes that lead to drug-taking on sink estates: lives bereft, generation after generation, of any meaning or structure, appalling living conditions, dismal, third-rate education, poverty of aspiration, moral turpitude and welfare dependency?

But perhaps this is the point. Who really cares if coarse, foul-mouthed, feckless single parent Karen McNumpty and her hideous boyfriend die in the gutter of a long-term heroin addiction funded by pimping and prostitution? If legalisation does not help them, so what? The unspoken thought seems to be that the important thing is to help others who are more deserving; others, indeed, such as Rachel Whitear, a middle-class girl whose 'sweet face sang of the hope and joy of youth', to quote Mr Anderson. She has elicited his sympathy in a way that Karen McNumpty — graceless at 12, pregnant at 16, an addict by 19 — never could. Mr Anderson thinks that legalisation might help girls like Rachel — and indeed it might. But where does that leave Karen? Should a civilised society enact legislation that is really designed to help only one of its constituent parts?

By the age of 15, nearly all children in Scotland have been offered drugs. Some will swell the ranks of the 56,000 addicts already registered. Of the 2,6 million offences committed each year in Glasgow alone, 90 per cent, according to police, are drug-related. One child in every 100 takes drugs before their 11th birthday. Clearly, a new strategy is needed.

But let us never forget that there are two worlds out there, one that operates through logic and consistency and another in which things are much more chaotic and complicated. Those pushing for the legalisation of hard drugs must not let their view of how things should be prevent them from seeing how things are. All middle-class parents want reassurance that, should their children take heroin, they will not die. All middle-class taxpayers want the crime statistics, and therefore their insurance premiums, to fall. But although our world is run by the middle classes, it is those whose lot in life is rather less comfortable who would bear the real brunt of moves towards the legalisation of hard drugs. They do not seem to be full of enthusiasm for the idea. As one addict, now on his second methadone programme, told me last week, and I paraphrase for ease of comprehension, 'Legalisation? What a joke. Christ? What planet are they living on? God, those bloody chatterers. They'll be the death of us all.'