Could UK's new damning drug report bring about decriminalisation or is funding treatment the only way?

Allegra Stratton

Former National Editor

We’re in Glasgow where Dame Carol Black has just delivered a pretty blisteringly critical account of the role the drug market played in causing serious violence to rocket in the UK. She was asked by the former Home Secretary Sajid Javid to look at current drug use and today she has delivered in comprehensive, blow-the-doors-off fashion for Boris Johnson.

Being in the room as she delivered her assessment you could see tables of senior police officers and politicians shift uncomfortably in their seats at various parts.

You can read the report for yourself here. It describes a “perfect storm”: an increase in drugs coming into the UK and a purer quality to those drugs alongside a drop in what she calls the “protective” factors - treatment for drug addiction and recovery as well as the protection of children who, through cuts to youth services and increases in exclusions from school, have been sucked into organised crime.

Black told me this what the thing that shocked her most -the number of children involved in drug dealing, but also their drug taking.

Firstly, the nature of the drugs market in the UK. The smell of cannabis is so prevalent on our streets that sometimes you might think it’s cannabis sales driving the violence. The same might be true for politicians’ penchant for mentioning cocaine - I remember at the time he commissioned this review, the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid was keen on telling us that middle class cocaine users were driving the county lines problem.

The ‘woke folk’ who like avocado on toast and almond milk were, went the argument, driving the exploitation of the vulnerable.

Dame Carol Black speaking at the UK Drugs Summit being held at the Scottish Events Campus. Credit: PA

That definitely did not tally with what we were seeing on the grounds in our reporting and today Black’s report confirms he wasn’t right: of the £9.4bn drug market they identify the lion’s share is heroin (41% or £4bn) and powder cocaine is half this (20% or £2bn).

Cannabis is the second largest part of the market - 25% or £2bn – but still far behind heroin. Surprisingly low is crack cocaine (14% or £1bn) but the combination preferred by many street addicts – crack and heroin – makes up 50% of all the drugs market. It is not middle class drug use driving this problem (though of course it is in the mix)… it’s the addiction of much poorer, desperate individuals.

A stall at the Scottish Drugs Conference being held at the Scottish Events Campus (SEC) in Glasgow. Credit: PA

Black’s review will get headlines for saying law enforcement has “deprioritised policing drugs” because of too few resources. She also has some uncomfortable stats on how well law enforcement is currently stopping drugs from getting in to the country – just 1 per cent of heroin is intercepted by border police. I think a forthcoming review of the NCA may see them receive more funding for this kind of operation.

But she wants everyone to be “realistic about this route”. To be fair to them, a great many senior police figures have been saying this to me for a couple of years now.

It would then usually be routine for us all to ask about whether the drug laws are right… but here we reach a brick wall: the government strictly forbid Dame Carol Black from looking at whether our drug laws work. Given this, it is then odd that this afternoon at the government’s own drugs summit, they will hear from the Portuguese.

That country decriminalised drug use and made it punishable with an appearance before a committee which took a proactive interest in helping a user come off the drug.

The result? In Portugal, they have four drug deaths per million; in the UK we have ten times that. But as I say, a brick wall. When I asked Dame Black if she thought Portugal was the way to go, she refused to be drawn.

Instead she seems to believe she must get the government to invest in treatment. Drugs cost the UK economy £20bn, but we spend just £600m on treatment.

Drugs cost the UK economy £20bn, but we spend just £600m on treatment. Credit: PA

“If you have cancer or diabetes, you would get the best drugs around” she put to the conference. “I ask you to reflect on what we might do for people with a different chronic condition – addiction?”

She points to evidence that treatment leads to fewer people taking drugs. What form this treatment should take – whether the government cuts to drugs services since 2010 should be totally reversed or more than that – wasn’t clear. The government has already given the go ahead for more heroin assisted treatment rooms in Middlesborough. Should there be more of them around the country? It wasn’t clear.

Off the back of this report, the policing minister Kit Malthouse told the conference he would gather with other home affairs ministers from the devolved nations and regions in four weeks time to decide what to do next. To be fair to him, he did seem to understand his government needed to have something to say. He told the conference he woken up that morning and reflected on his 20 years in politics and concluded that he couldn’t remember a time when drugs were as prolific as they are right now.

The prime minister has said he wants to “totally wind up” county lines. If he’s to do that, he’d do well to listen to Dame Carol Black. They would then have a (hopefully) fertile conversation about funding drug treatment. He then might close the door and ask this woman who has authored such a thorough detailed report what she would also do, if there really were no no-go areas.