One of the great quandaries of drug policy is the question of whether the price of heroin should be high or low. If the price is high, we’d like to think that this will act as a disincentive to consumption. However, a high price causes an addict’s life to descend into greater chaos. Once the addict’s savings have been spent he inevitably begins to steal, but can only steal barely enough to feed the habit. Once the bills are red and the landlord’s patience exhausted, the addict becomes vagrant and begins to lose his health, leaving him to face either eventual death, or rehabilitation with a price: permanently damaged health for him, and for us, a considerable burden upon the state through the provision of healthcare and thereby the entitlement to social housing. So the question is whether we get value from maintaining a high price of heroin if it costs us far more both in revenue and social costs.
The price of heroin acts as a gauge in the war on drugs. An increased street price demonstrates that the authorities are successfully combating the amount that appears on the street. A lower price demonstrates that the drug industry has the upper hand. Yet the problem with this concept is that is feels like something of a competition, or maybe like a Saturday afternoon game of football, whereby if our team scores we all cheer but if their team scores, we’re miserable. It doesn’t address the central issue that really matters here; the blight on the lives of our sons and daughters by the scourge of drug addiction. We do need to consider the effect of a lower price on greater consumption, but we also need to consider the effect of price on those of our sons and daughters addicted and the knock on effect this has on society as listed above.
I had a 17 year old client today who came off heroin a couple of months ago, and each day since, at 10am, he goes to his local pharmacy to get his script (prescription) of methadone. However, immediately after his script, he’ll go to the high street with the £5 given him by his supportive mum to stop him stealing, buys cider and hangs about with the winos on park benches. A therapist would argue that this is not addressing the addiction at all, but simply replacing one substance with two others, however, I disagree. This lad has taken the first step in dealing with his problem; to acknowledge it by making a commitment to the methadone program, even if his commitment is flawed. His next step would be therapy to establish why he feels the need to obliterate reality, but the fact that he’s engaging in the methadone program brings him into contact with the state, making a future course of therapy readily available. My point being that he is engaged and real engagement is a greater weapon than flouted law or ineffective principles.
Huge amounts of heroin are confiscated each year, yet the state will only prescribe substitute methadone due to ethical arguments against the supply of confiscated drugs. However, is it ethical to force addicts to continue to rely on ruthless criminals whose objective is to keep them addicted in order that they can make a profit, when they could come under the care of the state, whose objective is to guide them out of their tragic predicament?
Many addicts take part in the methadone program, but far more continue to waste away in their addiction; always desiring an end to the misery but forever afraid to take the first step. If a program of Heroin scripts existed alongside the Methadone program the addicts would come forward and the program could be made conditional on their engagement with a drugs worker.
The program would cause the street price of heroin to fall, but this would not be due to the success of the drugs business, but due to the shrinking of their market and the consequent reduction in their margins. The Heroin program would considerably reduce acquisitive crime, while undermining the traffickers and dealers, reducing their resources and therefore their security, and the consequence of this would be to considerably increase prosecution opportunities in the war against drugs. Although a lower price would increase consumption in the short-term, the likely long-term outcome of this scenario is that importers would consider their reduced margins and concentrate their efforts on supplying other markets thereby reducing the amount of drugs arriving in this country. Although this would be a beggar-thy-neighbour outcome initially, if the program does have such an effect then it will be proven effective enough that those neighbours would join and the program could spread to other countries creating a massive impact on the international market for narcotics and a massive blow for international organised crime.