Mev Brown: Radical enforcement is needed in war on drugs

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Drug smuggling can be a dangerous, but highly profitable, business. A glance at some recent newspaper headlines would suggest that the “£1.5 million drug bust” is a significant victory in the war on drugs.

Indeed, in June this year, commenting on evidence presented at the High Court in Edinburgh following a cocaine seizure with a street value of £1m at Edinburgh Airport, judge Lord Uist said: “Somebody has lost a lot of money.”

Sadly, no. Drug seizures tend to be reported in terms of the local “street price”. Fair enough, that provides local context and a good headline.

But the value of cocaine increases dramatically as it moves along the supply chain. The wholesale price for cocaine in Peru is about £650 a kilo, meaning the drug gang lost around £7000 worth of drugs when the two British girls, Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum, were arrested in Peru last month. Small busts of this sort are simply written off as the cost of doing business.

Most of the UK’s cocaine comes in via Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, usually via staging points in the Caribbean and west Africa. The smuggler caught at Edinburgh Airport earlier this year had travelled directly from Senegal.

In 2002, the Dutch introduced a policy of “total control” at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, which means that every passenger on flights from certain countries is subject to control measures. The Dutch authorities found that the number of drug mules dropped on some flights from an average of 50 (yes, fifty) to an average of seven.

When considering drug smuggling, we should not forget the scale of demand.

Scotland consumes around £1 billion worth of drugs each year. A small amount will be produced domestically, but the large bulk is cocaine and heroin – around 14 metric tonnes, or 14,000 kilograms – which must be smuggled into the country.

For the sake of argument, if a typical mule carries 5kg of drugs, then 2800 mules each year are required to meet Scotland’s demand for drugs. But the UK’s international airports carry well over 200m passengers each year. Heathrow alone handles 70m.

When you actually think about these numbers, only then can you really begin to understand the hopelessly impossible task our law enforcement agencies face.

But, of course, that is only one part of the task.

Drug smugglers use every option available – other means of drug smuggling include air freight, with five per cent of freight tonnage coming into the UK by air.

Then there are also sea passengers, ro-ro ferries and sea freight. The UK’s international sea port industry is the largest in Europe and 95 per cent of freight tonnage comes in by sea.

Finally, there is rail, via the Channel Tunnel and don’t forget the postal service.

Given the levels of staffing of our law enforcement agencies, given the volume of passengers, cargo and mail, you have to ask yourself what on earth are our politicians smoking for them to possibly think that our law enforcement agencies have any chance of having a meaningful impact on this trade?

Possession alone is simply not a practical means of law enforcement.

There will come a day when our politicians realise that making it illegal to be under the influence of illegal substances is the best way to police the use of illegal drugs.

The sooner that day comes, the better – for all of us.

Mev Brown is editor of the Front Line Policy blog.