The City of London is the money-laundering centre of the world's drug trade. UK banks and financial services have ignored so-called "know your customer" rules designed to curb criminals’ abilities to launder the proceeds of crime. A National Crime Agency (NCA) threat assessment stated: "We assess that hundreds of billions of US dollars of criminal money almost certainly continue to be laundered through UK banks, including their subsidiaries, each year."
For more than two decades, Maua enjoyed booming business propelled by the growth and sale of khat, known locally as miraa, a popular herb whose leaves and stems are chewed for the mild high they offer. But last year the UK, home to one of khat’s biggest markets, declared the stimulant a class C drug and banned all imports, prompting Maua’s rapid descent into economic purgatory.
In 2000 a report by Europe’s drug agency (EMCDDA) found that Britain had an unusually large number of young cannabis users: they "topped the EU league", as one British paper spun it. This year’s report showed that in the past 15 years the tables have turned. While the number of 15-34-year-olds using pot has risen or held steady in most countries, in England and Wales it has almost halved. Meanwhile, Britain’s domestic pot production is booming: the number of growing operations seized more than doubled between 2007 and 2009, overtaking the Netherlands and accounting for half the busts in Europe.
The booming trade in legal highs will go underground in the face of blanket bans, such as that now being debated in Britain, European drug experts have warned in the annual report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). They say online "grey marketplaces" selling new psychoactive substances (NPS) and greater use of social media are emerging as alternatives to the high street "head shops" and public websites likely to be shut down by laws enforcing a blanket ban on the trade. (See also: Legal highs: which drugs will be banned in the UK?)
No fewer than six randomised controlled trials – in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Canada, and England – concluded that heroin assisted treatment is more effective than conventional treatments in a subgroup of heroin users.
Campaigners for a more evidence-based drug policy are horrified. "It’s a classic and appalling example of gutter politics,” says Martin Jelsma, Director of the drugs policy programme of the Transnational Institute. “Accusing the Lib Dems of being ‘soft on drugs and thugs’ is a cheap populist slogan that tries to hide the Labour Party's own co-responsibility for destroying the future of thousands of people by giving them a criminal record for no good reason at all."
Sir Richard Branson and Nick Clegg are urging the UK to begin decriminalising the use and possession of almost all drugs, following the example of Portugal. The Virgin founder and deputy prime minister argue in a Guardian article that the "war on drugs" has failed. "As an investment, the war on drugs has failed to deliver any returns," they write. "If it were a business, it would have been shut down a long time ago. This is not what success looks like." (See also: Knives out for Clegg as anti-drugs lobby targets Lib Dems)
Statistics can be a limited and limiting way to understand social issues. When we focus on how many people are affected by a problem, or how much the government spends on tackling it, we start to see numbers instead of people. The opposite is also true, though: without statistical evidence, it’s hard to understand the scale of a problem.