Young people are the victims of the war on drugs

Guns are not inherent to the sale of drugs, only to the sale of drugs under prohibition

Johann Hari

The Independent, London

19 February 2007

In our week-long national shriek about south London slowly morphing into South Central, one key word has been missing: prohibition.

We have stared at the soft no-need-to-shave face of Billy Cox, the 15-year-old weed-dealer shot in his bedroom in the shadow of the City of London. We have half-sniggered at the Ali G names of the gangs he was up against: the Brick Lane Massive, the Paki Panthers, the Ghetto Boys of Peckham. We have learned you can buy handguns for 200 and a machine gun for 4,000 on the street. But we have failed to see that the events of the past week are simply following the inexorable logic of drug prohibition.

Here's how it works. By criminalising the trade in cannabis, cocaine and heroin, we don't make the drugs disappear. We simply hand this multi-billion pound industry - around 3 per cent of Britain's GDP - to armed gangs. A fortnight ago, two of the most powerful drug dealers in south London were sent to prison, so a slew of gangs is now fighting to take over their patch, their trade and their profits. The boys who are being gunned down are rivals for these riches. They will keep shooting their opponents until one gang emerges as the clear winner, or until a few gangs band together in an obviously unbeatable alliance.

So these gun-toting posses of kids have not tooled up simply to play the Big Man and look like Snoop Dogg (though no doubt it's an incidental pleasure). This is not Columbine-style senseless violence. It is happening for hard economic reasons. Milton Friedman, the late Nobel Prize-winning economist, understood this. He explained: "Al Capone epitomises our earlier attempt at Prohibition; the Crips and Bloods epitomise this one."

He saw a central truth. Guns are not inherent to the sale of drugs. They are only inherent to the sale of drugs under prohibition. Go to a pub or off-license in Hackney, and you'll find that Oddbins and Costcutters are not engaged in a turf-war. The Tesco Posse and the Sainsbury's Massive are not taking out each other's homies over the right to sell Tetley's Bitter. Why? Because their trade is not subject to prohibition. If somebody tries to steal their stock, they can call the police.

But prohibited substances can only be protected with private force. That's why the underground bars in Chicago needed Capone's guns, and why today - according to Scotland Yard estimates - 95 per cent of the guns in Britain are linked to the drugs trade. Friedman calculated that there are 10,000 additional murders in the US every year as a result of drug prohibition: a vast mass grave of slaughtered dealers, their families, and (mostly) random people caught in the crossfire. We are now building a replica-pit in Britain.

Yet our politicians are too pickled in prohibitionist platitudes to see this. Tony Blair is talking about extending prison sentences for carrying guns, but this is a weapon with no ammunition. If you talk to any of these gang-kids, they'll tell you their odds of ever being caught are tiny.

They're right. As Stephen Lander, chairman of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, puts it: "If you are an organised crook for 20 years, you have a 5 per cent chance of getting nicked." This isn't because of police laxness; it's because the drugs trade is so vast the police can only ever hope to pick at its surface. Adding a few extra years to a hypothetical sentence you'll never serve is no deterrent at all to a gang member.

David Cameron is offering a parallel fantasy-solution when he talks about gluing together broken families as The Answer. He points to research that shows the children of divorced parents are more likely to turn to crime - but this is irreparably punctured by the findings of sociologist Louie Burghe, who discovered that these kids actually start to do worse on every indicator long before their parents split up. The problem isn't divorce; it's having incompatible parents who can't stand each other. Bribing warring parents to stay together, as Cameron wants to, may actually - according to this evidence - make the problem worse.

No. The only real solution is to take the drugs trade back from the gun-wielding gangster-children, and hand it to doctors and pharmacists and off-licenses. This would bankrupt most of our criminal gangs overnight, and remove the need for (and purchasing power behind) 95 per cent of the guns in Britain.

Of course many criminals will try to move into other forms of illegal enterprise, such as money-laundering or people-trafficking, but none will have the profit margins of the old drugs trade and all carry higher risks, boosting the relative utility of going straight. A boy like Billy Cox would not be drawn to them. He would still be alive today - and so would thousands more victims of our failing, flailing "war on drugs".