Scotland’s drugs tsar has sparked a furious row by openly declaring that the war on drugs is “long lost”. Tom Wood, a former deputy chief constable, is the first senior law enforcement figure publicly to admit drug traffickers will never be defeated. Wood said no nation could ever eradicate illegal drugs and added that it was time for enforcement to lose its number one priority and be placed behind education and deterrence.
But his remarks have been condemned by Graeme Pearson, director of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA), who said he “strongly disagreed” with Wood.
The row has erupted as concern mounts about the apparent inability of police, Customs and other agencies to stem the flow of illegal drugs. It was reported yesterday that an eight-year-old Scottish school pupil had received treatment for drug addiction. And despite decades of drug enforcement costing millions of pounds, Scotland has one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with an estimated 50,000 addicts. At least half a million Scots are believed to have smoked cannabis and 200,000 are believed to have taken cocaine.
Wood holds the influential post of chairman of the Scottish Association of Alcohol and Drug Action Teams, a body which advises the Executive on future policy. The fact that Wood and Pearson are at loggerheads over the war on drugs is severely embarrassing for ministers.
Wood said: “I spent much of my police career fighting the drugs war and there was no one keener than me to fight it. But latterly I have become more and more convinced that it was never a war we could win. We can never as a nation be drug-free. No nation can, so we must accept that. So the message has to be more sophisticated than ‘just say no’ because that simple message doesn’t work. For young people who have already said ‘yes’, who live in families and communities where everybody says ‘yes’, we have to recognise that the battle is long lost.”
He added: “Throughout the last three decades, enforcement has been given top priority, followed by treatment and rehabilitation, with education and deterrence a distant third. In order to make a difference in the long term, education and deterrence have to go to the top of the pile. We have to have the courage and commitment to admit that we have not tackled the problem successfully in the past. We have to win the arguments and persuade young people that drugs are best avoided.”
Wood said he “took his hat off” to the SCDEA and added that it was essential to carry on targeting dealers. He stressed he was not advocating the decriminalisation or legalisation of any drugs. “It’s about our priorities and our thinking,” said Wood. “Clearly, at some stage, there could be resource implications, but the first thing we have to do is realise we can’t win any battles by continuing to put enforcement first.”
But Pearson, director of the SCDEA, said he “fundamentally disagreed” that the war on drugs was lost. “I strongly disagree when he says that the war on drugs in Scotland is lost. The Scottish Executive Drug Action Plan acknowledged that tackling drug misuse is a complex problem, demanding many responses. It is explicit within the strategy that to effectively tackle drug misuse, the various pillars of the plan cannot operate in isolation.”
Alistair Ramsay, former director of Scotland Against Drugs, said: “We must never lose sight of the fact that enforcement of drug law is a very powerful prevention for many people and, if anything, drug law should be made more robust. The current fixation with treatment and rehabilitation on behalf of the Executive has really got to stop.”
And Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: “I accept Wood’s sincerity, but this is a very dangerous message to go out. I would never say that we have lost the war on drugs. Things are dire, but we should never throw up the white flag.”
But Wood’s view was backed by David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, who said: “We have never used the term ‘drugs war’ and it’s right to move away from that sort of approach. For every ?1 spent on treatment, ?9-?18 is saved, including in criminal justice. The balance has been skewed towards more punitive aspects.”
And John Arthur, manager of the drugs advice organisation Crew 2000, said: “I think Tom Wood is right. This is something our organisation has been arguing for for a long time and it is good to see this is now coming into the mainstream.”
Among the ideas now backed by Wood is less reliance on giving methadone as a substitute to heroin addicts. He says other substitutes should be considered, as well as the possibility of prescribing heroin itself or abstinence programmes. One new method being examined by experts is neuro-electric therapy, which sends electrical pulses through the brain. One addict with a five-year habit, Barry Philips, 24, from Kilmarnock, said the treatment enabled him to come off heroin in only five days.
Wood said: “We need to look at the other options. Other substitutes are used in other countries. They even prescribe heroin in Switzerland and there is a pilot in Germany, with pilots also mooted in England and, more recently, Scotland. We need to have a fully informed debate.”
A Scottish Executive spokesman said: “We have a very clear policy on drugs, which is to balance the need to tackle supply and challenge demand. They have to go hand in hand and we make no apology for that.”
Scotland on Sunday Editorial: “Busted strategy of the war on drugs”
The admission that the war on drugs in Scotland has already been lost, made in these pages today by the man at the head of the battle, is to a large extent a statement of the obvious. Who could legitimately argue otherwise when 50,000 Scots are addicted to drugs, mostly heroin, or when it was disclosed last week that an eight-year-old was among 548 Scottish children who were treated for addiction last year?
It was, nonetheless, brave of Tom Wood to become the first significant figure to come out and state what so many others quietly believe – however clear we are that drugs are a scourge on our society, they are never going to go away. The chair of the Scottish Association of Alcohol and Drug Action Teams, and a senior policeman with decades of experience at the sharp end, Wood has to be taken seriously when he says that the ‘Just Say No’ tactic will not work in a country where 5% of 12-year-olds have experimented with drugs.
Inevitably, in speaking out, Wood threw himself into another drugs war – the ongoing wrangle between those who pursue an absolutist agenda and those who favour harm reduction. Graeme Pearson, director of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, said he “fundamentally disagreed” with Wood, while Alistair Ramsay, former director of Scotland Against Drugs, insisted there should be even more emphasis on enforcement to tackle the menace.
The failure of the anti-drugs industry, which has blossomed over the past 10 years in Scotland, has been its inability to marry this hardline viewpoint with the equally clear need to offer a pragmatic approach to rehabilitation and care for those already suffering from drug abuse. Too often, the harm reduction lobby has fought with the drug prevention groups in an unseemly turf war, squabbling over who gets the most government cash. All the while, the number of drug-related deaths has risen by 30% since the mid-1990s, at a time when it is falling across the rest of the UK.
On this occasion, Wood is largely, if depressingly, correct. We do need to get real about drugs and target resources better. As with so many of Scotland’s social ills, drug misuse largely hurts the poorest the hardest. Problematic drug use varies from 2.9 people per 1,000 in Orkney, to 30.8 people per 1,000 in Glasgow. Over the past decade, there was an average of 460 hospital admissions per 100,000 people in Glasgow, compared with a mere 20 per 100,000 in the most affluent areas. If this government is genuinely serious about tackling the drug abuse, then it needs to bring an end to the ghetto-isation of Scotland’s poor through stimulating the kind of opportunity culture which provides the only real antidote to drugs.
The other main target must be the young. Great strides have been made in the way we educate children about the risks attached to taking drugs. As Wood stresses, the only way the message will be taken seriously by teenagers is if they are treated seriously and given the information they need to make up their own minds. We can only hope they then make the right decision.
Educating younger children – such as the seven-year-old who collapsed in class after taking methadone – is more problematic, but all the evidence suggests that, despite the problems associated with introducing them to drugs through education, it is preferable to letting them discover these particular facts of life through ill-informed playground chat or even at the hands of the local drug dealer.
But we cannot entirely back Wood. There is a danger that his words will be seen as the forces of law and order giving in to those who profit from the misery of addiction. In part, we define our society by declaring those things we simply will not condone, no matter how popular they may be with a minority of people. Therefore, while the war on drugs may not be winnable – and perhaps, as Wood believes, may already be lost – we must continue to fight it with every means at our disposal. And we must never declare a surrender.
? Editorial from Scotland on Sunday