Another interesting blog entry this week from the Centre for policy studies (CPS) written by Kathy Gyngell. This one, entitled “Can the Government stay in denial any longer?” was inspired by the recent United Nations World Drug Report which amongst other things highlighted the failure of the UK’s war on drugs and the high rates of usage we have in this country.

A word about the CPS if you’ve never heard of them. A quick look at their website gives a pretty clear indication of where they come from politically:

The Centre for Policy Studies believes in freedom and responsibility. One of Britain’s best known and most respected think tanks, the Centre develops and promotes policies to limit the role of the state, to encourage enterprise and to enable the institutions of society – such as families and voluntary organizations – to flourish.

The CPS is no socialist organisation. As it says, it exists to promote freedom and responsibility and to limit the role of the state. The CPS believes fundamentally in the role of the market and everything that follows from it. Private enterprise is a concept they claim to not only support, but to champion and promote. Indeed if you read the blogs on the site they all defend these values. All, that is, apart from those written by Kathy on the subject of illegal drugs and the role of prohibition.

The point to make of course is that the illegal drugs trade is a really good example of the operation of free enterprise, people making money by offering a service.

This one is only the latest in a series of blogs written by Kathy Gyngell on the CPS website which support hard-line prohibition, the role of big government in its organisation, the repression of the rights of the individual and so on. At the heart of the thinking of the CPS is the belief in the free market and the unfettered operation thereof and the contradiction between this philosophy and Kathy Gyngell’s support for prohibition is glaringly obvious and one is forced to wonder if this issue has really been thought through within the think-tank.

Summer’s here and with summer comes the blooming of flowers. Outside my house right now, growing out of a neighbours wall on the pavement are these particular blooms:

PoppyYes, that’s right, they are opium poppies, the same type as we are fighting a war against in Afghanistan, the very plant that produces heroin. If you take a knife to the seed heads, they bleed opium and there they are, growing in all their glory in inner city Norwich.

Now, while it is true that this particular part of Norwich is known locally as the “Golden Triangle”, it isn’t because it’s famous for its opium production. In fact Opium poppies are a common weed and they pop up all over this part of the UK and probably everywhere else. If you know what to look for right now they are all over the place.

You can’t really see it in this photo but there isn’t actually any soil here, the plants are growing up through a tiny crack in the tarmac; this is because they are a weed and being a weed, they are very easy to grow.

The point of showing this photo and explaining the weed status of the Opium poppy is to make a simple point; they are – or should be – a very low value plant which brings us to the basic flaw in Kathy Gyngell’s drug war logic. Here we have a weed which grows wild in our own country, yet we have created the economic conditions that have made it massively profitable enough to dominate the economy of whole countries and to tie up our military in what many would say is an unwinnable war. For a policy to raise the value of a weed by so much is quite an achievement which the supporters of the free market like the CPS would normally be expected to understand and to be highly critical of. But in any case they really shouldn’t have a problem understanding why entrepreneurs have been attracted to the business given the profits involved.

Because they are so easy to grow you can’t ever get rid of them. Each seed head produces more seeds than you can comfortably imagine and they lay in the ground, dormant, for years and years. So any idea that we can eradicate the opium poppy is, to be polite, stupid. Add to that the product at the heart of all this fuss, Opium, has a long shelf life, so it can be stored with ease. It – or rather its refined cousin heroin – doesn’t have to get from farm to vein quickly, it can take it’s time, travel by slow routes and go the long way round. The idea that we can prevent opiates is, in all honesty, just daft.

Last but not least it’s  a product in very high demand and which keeps itself in high demand by the section of society least likely to be influenced by such concepts as laws.

It’s probably in order to try to address this last aspect that the government has set up its methadone programme which Kathy is so dismissive of in her writings, it’s nothing to do with recovery and everything to do with reducing the demand for the illegal product and thus reach of the illegal trade. So yes, it is madness – we are inflating the value of a weed to more than the price of gold, then pouring huge amounts of public money into providing a free replacement.

Thing is, Kathy Gyngell correctly identifies so many of the problems. It’s pretty obvious that the present drugs policy is a mess, that people are trapped in addiction and that the government is in denial. She is right that in some parts of society people live no-hope lives and this simply re-enforces the downward spiral. She is utterly right to dismiss the claims by SOCA about the rising price of cocaine which has far more to do with the fall in the value of the Pound than anything the enforcement agencies have done.

But having identified the problems, she suggests the answer is more of the same; it’s not working because we’re not trying hard enough. The answer to Kathy is to cut the Methadone supply – which of course would force hundreds of thousands of addicts straight back into the arms of the dealers. She wants a massive increase in state spending (to subsidise private rehab clinics maybe?) and a greatly increased role for the government in deciding the fate of people’s private lives. Never mind “freedom and responsibility”, we need stronger police and more state intervention apparently.

Apart from being utterly at odds with her organisation’s core values, there is little or no hard evidence that the approach supported by Kathy Gyngell actually works or could ever be made to work.  Indeed, there can never be the evidence for the simple and oft repeated truth that prohibition prevents any valid scientific study of the using group. So there is no way to know that the prime aim of prohibition is ever achieved – that of reducing the use of these substances to the minimum. There is, however, quite a lot of evidence to suggest that prohibition doesn’t achieve it’s primary goal but does create plenty of problems of its own making.

There is of course, another issue along with the increase in rates of use which should be ringing alarm bells now. We are told (admittedly  by the police and government so it might not be true) that street cocaine is now around 10% pure, in other words about 90% impure. Perhaps Kathy and her supporters might like to consider at what point the high levels of impurities the policy they support creates actually  becomes a higher risk than the substance they are trying to prevent. Like so much about prohibition, we don’t know the answer to that and we can have no way of knowing.

It has long been a source of amazement that people who profess to be such strong supporters of the rule of law and the role of the market put so much faith in prohibition as a way to solve the problems we see around us.  Even though they live by the philosophy of profit making and private enterprise they ignore the gross distortions of the market prohibition creates and call for ever more centralised control and bigger government to solve it.  Individual rights mean nothing to them and they keep this faith even though they see the symptoms of the problem growing day by day as the cost in money terms to society and harm to people continues to rise. Most bizarrely we have the free market think tank- the CPS –  supporting the concepts of supply reduction as a means of reducing demand and of boosting profits as a disincentive to free enterprise. That is just so at odds with the laws of supply and demand which are at the heart of free market capitalism as to be almost eye wateringly funny.

There’s something very odd going on within the CPS with their drugs policy which could be  the early signs of a total rethink of the principles given to it by Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in 1974. Strange, normally that would be something I would have supported.