The woke who do coke? Why targeting middle-class cocaine users won’t tackle crime

A policy that blows.

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The Home Secretary Sajid Javid is cracking down on middle-class drug users. He’s launching a review of drug misuse this week, and will be focusing on the claim – made by Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick and others – that middle-class cocaine users are fuelling the drug trade, which can drive knife and gun crime.

This review – announced in his Conservative Party conference speech – has very much been briefed as getting tough on professionals who buy and take the drug casually.

These are some of the headlines after his speech was briefed: Sajid Javid to unveil probe into middle-class drug use as part of serious violence crackdown, Drug use among middle-class professionals to be investigated to combat violence, Middle-class drug users to be targeted in purge on causes of violent crime, and Sajid Javid pledges to get tough on middle-class cocaine users.

Although it is expected to investigate all types of users and all illegal drugs, the Tories’ desired focus for the press coverage of Javid’s announcement was clearly “the woke who do coke”. So unsurprisingly there’s more politics than substance to this focus, which distracts from the government’s real problem when it comes to tackling violent crime.

Making more people criminals doesn’t reduce crime

The heart of the problem with this announcement is that the government appears to be pledging to criminalise more people involved in the illegal drugs market. You can’t reduce drug crime by… making more people criminals because of drugs.

As Johann Hari, the former journalist who writes about addiction and mental health, points out on Twitter: US gangs under prohibition weren’t tackled by targeting alcohol drinkers. They disappeared when the ban was lifted.

Either you follow the overwhelming evidence that relaxing drug laws leads to safer use and trade or you continue to delude yourself for political purposes that “cracking down” will tackle the problem rather than exacerbating it. Hint to Javid: further criminalisation will perpetuate drug-linked crime.

How do you know that?

Countless studies of drug policies across the world come to pretty much one conclusion: the “war on drugs” doesn’t work. For example, Portugal decriminalised all drugs 17 years ago – the result has seen the end of its heroin epidemic, and a massive drop in overdoses, HIV and drug-related crime. The drug-induced mortality rate reduced by more than half in seven years.

After the Czech Republic decriminalised possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use in 2009, it was less of a stark success – but still, its rates of addiction and use remained similar.

The lesson? Liberalising drug laws won’t lead to higher rates of abuse, can reverse problems including crime, and – importantly – reduces the social stigma and fear of punishment that prevents addicts seeking help. Prosecuting for drug use makes addicts feel like criminals rather than people suffering from poor mental health who need help.

So why have none of our governments changed the policy?

Evidence that a more liberal stance on drugs would be a positive thing exists in Whitehall, but there have been high-profile cases of it being suppressed.

Take Professor David Nutt, sacked by former home secretary Alan Johnson as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009 for his paper calling alcohol and tobacco more harmful than many illegal drugs, including LSD, ecstasy and cannabis.

He supported reclassifying ecstasy from a class A drug to class B. He had previously criticised politicians for “distorting” and “devaluing” research in the debate over illicit drugs, during a row with Johnson’s predecessor Jacqui Smith, who ignored the recommendation of his committee that cannabis should not be reclassified from class C back to class B (the evidence showed the initial downgrade had reduced its use).

“Politics is politics and science is science and there’s a bit of a tension between them sometimes,” he said when he was sacked.

It was a similar story of politics-over-evidence when the Lib Dem MP Norman Baker became a home office minister in 2013 during the coalition. In this role, he pushed for changes to drug policy – eventually resigning the following November over conflicts with his then boss the home secretary Theresa May, citing the release of drug law reform recommendations being “repeatedly blocked” by his Tory colleagues.

The study, drawn up by Home Office civil servants, concluded there was “no obvious” link between tougher sanctions and levels of drug use, and included a “Portuguese model” for treating rather than prosecuting minor drug offenders in its plans.

Before getting into power, David Cameron had called for a decriminalisation route as had Nick Clegg. Both chickened out when in office. Ultimately, our politicians know what the evidence shows – but they cling to public opinion and looking tough.

Are middle-class cocaine users a big problem though?

Not really. England and Wales Crime Survey research for 2017/18 into use of cocaine by household income shows a dip of use among upper-middle earners (those likely to hold professional jobs  earning between £30,000 - £40,000) with higher use among those earning around the average household income (around £28,000) and the very wealthy (the highest use is in the £50,000 or more bracket):

If this looks like prolific middle-class use to you, it’s misleading. Only 5.4m households out of 27m in the UK earn more than £50,000. And it’s not the whole picture. While 3.4 per cent of people in households with an income of £50,000 or more report using cocaine in the past year, that’s compared with 3.6 per cent of unemployed people. Social background doesn’t dictate level of cocaine use.

So the “woke who do coke” are blameless?

No, they’re simply a distraction. Some drug users are a fair target for accusations of hypocrisy or living in a bubble, say. There is something undeniably uncomfortable about middle-class, white liberals merrily taking drugs when gang crime – which can in part be linked to drug activities – plays out on the streets around them.

The Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick has criticised “a whole group of middle-class – or whatever you want to call them – people who will sit round... happily think about global warming and fair trade, and environmental protection and all sorts of things, organic food, but think there is no harm in taking a bit of cocaine. Well, there is; there’s misery throughout the supply chain.”

London mayor Sadiq Khan has also said: “There are some Londoners who think it is a victimless crime, taking cocaine at ‘middle-class parties’.”

Tottenham’s Labour MP David Lammy pointed out the racial discrepancy of this dynamic when I interviewed him in April. Without calling for further prosecutions, he still condemned a culture that criminalises poor black youths selling cocaine but excuses the middle-class revellers who take it:

“Casual recreational drug use that has effectively decriminalised cocaine for middle-class 20-somethings right across the country who are not being arrested for their use, let’s face it, and for whom ordering on WhatsApp or Snapchat from a young urban kid that turns up is prolific.”

So yes, there is a cultural tension here worth pointing out. But Javid’s simplistic war on the “woke who do coke” won’t solve the problem of violent crime he wishes to tackle. Party goers don’t cause drug crime; the legislative and punitive approach of successive governments ignoring the evidence does.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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