Fighting the wrong battle
It was reported last week that close to £200,000 worth of Class A drugs had been seized by police in Shetland during 2008/2009. This was primarily heroin.
There are a number of ways we can think about this figure. For Shetland, it shows a continuing increase in heroin use, which is severely worrying. But for the police it will be seen as something of a success – proof that current methods are having some impact.
Yet there is an irony here. It is an irony that is true of the whole country, but it becomes particularly pertinent in a place like Shetland, where the supply of drugs must pass through a bottleneck in order to reach the islands, and where, because of this, availability is limited by the quantity of drugs that can successfully be smuggled in. The irony is this: the more drugs the police successfully intercept on their way to Shetland, the more volatile and potentially limited the islands’ supply becomes. And since drug dealing is a market like any other, a limited supply (even a potentially limited supply) means a higher price for the product. This, in turn, has two negative consequences.
Firstly, a higher price means a more lucrative business, so Shetland becomes an increasingly attractive market for dealers and organised criminals. For them, the bottleneck has its risks – those enlisted to carry the drugs may get caught – but these are clearly outweighed by the profits to be made here. So the very volatility of supply may in fact exacerbate the problem.
Secondly, if prices do rise in Shetland, it is not just users who must pay more, it is the Shetland public. The more expensive the drug becomes, the more difficult it is for addicts to afford. They are therefore more likely to resort to criminal behaviour, particularly theft, to fund their habit.
So cracking down on supply, paradoxically, could have some very negative side effects, and it’s worth bearing this irony in mind. On a national scale of course, the limitations of current drugs policy have long been debated, and many commentators have suggested that a complete rethink is required, or even a move towards decriminalisation. This, it is claimed, would allow power and money to be taken out of the hands of organised criminals. It could also reduce other drugs-related crime, such as theft, prostitution and gang violence, and it would make drugs safer for those who do decide to use them.
I can understand the logic of this argument. Certainly, the evidence of American alcohol prohibition in the 1920s demonstrates that the problems caused by such proscriptive laws can be worse than those they are intended to solve. Decriminalisation would undoubtedly be a less contradictory and more realistic policy than our current one.
However, on a local level there is little we can do on this side of things. The police currently have a legal duty to go after dealers and traffickers. Inevitably though, it is the small-time and the pathetic who get caught, rarely the serious criminals (as evidenced by last week’s cases). Drugs will reach users in the end; the supply will get through somehow. The police are fighting a war that they cannot win. And this, surely, is the strongest signal there is that tackling drugs
must not be left to the police alone. For ultimately, the real problem is not the supply, it is the demand.
People do not become heroin addicts on a whim. It is not like getting a new haircut or a pair of shoes. The rise in heroin use in Britain is evidence of a problem with society – a sickness, if you like – and the dramatic rise in its use in Shetland should be hugely worrying to us. We must ask: why? What has gone wrong?
It is not, as I have sometimes heard claimed, just “sooth fok” that are using heroin in Shetland. The problem is much wider and deeper than that. And if we truly wish to tackle it, we must put more effort and resources into combating the disaffection and hopelessness of which heroin use is surely a symptom. If we do not do this, drug seizures will continue to get bigger each year. And these hauls will not be any kind of success; they will be evidence only of a huge failure.