Posted: 1/10/2003 11:15:28 AM EST
To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited site, go to http://www.guardian.co.uk
Better drugs laws will cut gun crime
Let's recognise reality and start selling the stuff at off-licences
Wednesday January 08 2003
A series of gun-related crimes is reported in the press over the last week and, as sure as night follows day, we have an immediate response from the government that it is going to bring forward legislation to increase the penalty for possessing a gun. At a time when our prisons are straining at the seams we have a headline-grabbing policy which may in the short term look good, and in the medium term will probably be either irrelevant or counter-productive. On top of this it is announced that the prime minister is going to take personal control of a new crusade against guns. Visas will monitor Jamaicans travelling to the UK, and instant deportation will face asylum seekers found in possession of such weapons.
First, let's put this into perspective: a Metropolitan police spokesman has said that gun-related crime only accounts for 0.003% of all crimes they deal with. Yes, it would appear that gun crime is increasing, but from a very small base. It is not a time to panic. Also we should remember that most gun crime relates to the illegal drugs trade, which is mainly controlled by foreign gangs, for whom guns are a regular part of the business. Drug dealers have been shooting each other for some time, without the media and Home Office attention suddenly being lavished upon them.
Admittedly there are changes occurring in the gangs that dominate this market. It would seem that at the moment there are a number of Kosovans moving in on the UK. This, though, probably has far more to do with US and UK military action in Kosovo (where defeat of the Serbs has facilitated drug running through the Balkans) and Afghanistan (where defeat of the Taliban has led to the extensive production of heroin again) than with the UK's sentencing laws for gun possession. The increase in gun crime is a byproduct of the level of organised crime that we are allowing to fester within our society - an organised crime business that is being fuelled by our wrongheaded laws relating to drugs.
The film Some Like It Hot has a scene when one Chicago gang is gunned down by another. The film is a comedy, drawing humour from the absurdity of the years of prohibition in the US, when alcohol was made illegal. Of course this did not stop drinking, it merely pushed it underground. The bar was replaced with the speakeasy. The legitimate supplier of booze was replaced by the gangster. A whole new criminal element was added to society that not only corroded the drink business, but also brought intimidation, violence and corruption into previously clean activities, for example in the rise of protection rackets. Today we laugh at films that portray that era, while ignoring the reality of such a situation existing and growing within our own society.
Drugs in this country are almost more freely available than alcohol: their supply is not constrained by licensing laws, large numbers of people smoke marijuana, particularly teenagers and young people, and a lot also take ecstasy and cocaine. They are not criminals; they are people you know. They are people who are likely to be sitting next to you at work, or living in your homes. But all these people are being brought into almost daily contact with organised crime. Isn't this a most foolish situation?
Please can we begin to hear some good sense from No 10 and the Home Office, and let's start looking at how drugs can be legalised and our society can be decriminalised. Let's recognise reality and start to reduce the numbers who are cluttering up our prisons. Let's start selling drugs through outlets such as off-licences, where the likelihood of dealing with someone holding a gun is virtually zero, unlike the street traders of today. Let's admit that we are getting it wrong, by allowing our fear and prejudice against certain drugs to drive us to pursue wrongheaded policies which only produce damaging social results.
When I was in government I visited Jamaica to see the harm the cocaine trade is doing to that country. It is a staging post between Colombia, where the cocaine is manufactured, and the UK and US, where it is consumed. Jamaica is a poor country with a fragile economy; its people are easily exploited by the drug barons, who often pay for the services of mules and other smugglers with the drug itself. That further ruins their employees' wretched lives and the society they live in. Jamaica, like many other countries around the world, is a victim of our laws.
The drug business thrives on demand from the developed world, a demand we are not properly controlling through legalisation. That leads to increasing lawlessness and corruption in our own countries, but also harms innocent countries such as Jamaica. That is the outrage that we should be focusing our attention upon.
· Mo Mowlam was in Tony Blair's cabinet from 1997-2001 and was responsible for the government's drugs policy from 1999-2001
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