Too Much Drug Policing Is Just Symbolic Bullshit

Drug enforcement is more about PR than results.

by Max Daly
15 December 2017, 3:20pm

Police searching a suspected drug dealer (Photo: Chris Bull / Alamy Stock Photo)

When police in Lincoln trumpeted the start of a series of random drug swabbing swoops targeting people going into pubs and clubs earlier this month, not everyone was thrilled about it. Dr Henry Fisher, who works for drug testing organisation The Loop and drug policy think-tank Volteface, was angry, describing Operation Waiver's use of drug itemiser machines on punters as expensive, pointless and even dangerous. He said we should be testing drugs – as The Loop has been doing at festivals this summer – not people.

But Operation Waiver is not all it seems. For starters, the police painted this as a happy collaboration between them and the club owners. Perhaps it was, but you can’t ignore the fact that the club’s then-promoter was convicted of selling cocaine and ketamine to punters this time last year. Maybe the club had one eye on its next license renewal. Allowing the police to drug test its customers may have been an act of judiciousness rather than any kind of moral crusade.

Despite what police told the media, this jolly bout of swabbing drinkers across small venues in Lincolnshire is not about catching drug users or dealers, or stopping people from taking drugs; if you really want to do that, get police drug dog units and drug itemisers camped outside warehouse parties. No – at its heart, Operation Waiver, like most drug policing these days, is a PR exercise.


A decade ago, Britain was edging towards becoming a zero tolerance surveillance state in terms of illegal drugs. Swabbing people before they went into pubs, bars and clubs, first trialled by Staffordshire police in 2002, was all the rage. Suddenly, police forces across Britain were shelling out for £30,000 drug itemiser machines. Kent police bought ten of them. Local newspapers hailed them a "major breakthrough" in stopping drug-taking in pubs and clubs, even though the tactic prompted harsh criticism as an "abuse of police powers" from human rights group Liberty.

It got silly. Keen to show their support for this blizzard of drug testing, two Welsh assembly members volunteered to be tested themselves, and both tested positive. Assembly member William Graham told reporters: "I can't think where I could have got it from." It was concluded his hand must have been cross-contaminated, "probably from a door handle". Edwina Hart, the other minister who tested positive, unintentionally exposed these machines for the police gimmicks they really are when she said, "You could pick it up from anywhere, couldn't you?" Well, exactly.

It wasn’t just drinkers and clubbers who were targeted as part of the 2000s drive to weed out Britain’s secret drug takers. The presence of drug sniffer dogs outside football games and at tube and train stations became pervasive, as did the rising popularity of workplace drug testing, even for non-safety critical desk jobs. One City firm deployed sniffer dogs to check their staff as they signed in for a day’s work.

Possibly the creepiest aspect of this was the increased monitoring of school children for drug use. In 2004, there were calls – backed by prime minister Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World – for all secondary schools to subject their children to random drug tests. It’s only 13 years ago, but it seems unthinkable now. The poster boy of this campaign was the Abbey School in Kent, which had started randomly plucking pupils from the register for mouth swab drug tests. It was held up as the future of school anti-drug policy and heavily championed by News of the World, which – it was later found – had part-funded the testing at Abbey School.

Thankfully, the hard-line prohibitionist juggernaut aimed at drug users hit the skids. Drug testing in the workplace never took off as people thought it would, and Murdoch and Blair’s plan to subject school children to random drug tests was eventually buried under a wealth of contradictory evidence. Drug sniffer dogs have been largely abandoned as ineffective and controversial by schools, as well as by the British Transport Police.

Still, some police forces continue to wheel out their drug itemiser machines at pubs and clubs, despite warnings from the drink trade that they are needlessly criminalising customers, and from councils that they are virtually useless because they're too resource intensive and just lead to using clubbers switching venues.

The drug testing in Lincoln, then, is clearly indicative of the increased superficiality of the police’s efforts to clamp down on Britain’s drug trade: for example, the Twitter-tagged drug raids filmed for local TV of cops in riot gear bashing down a door for what later turns out to be a gram of 5 percent speed in someone’s sock; the habitual exaggeration of the street value of drug busts; and the endless declarations that an area’s drug market has been extinguished, only for it to be open for business as usual within 48 hours.

Of course, drug policing does have some kind of impact on the drug trade. There are thousands in jail to prove this. The police achieve some big busts and put away some huge players. Enforcement shapes the way drugs are imported, sold and taken – and the content of drugs – as criminals adapt and change to avoid detection and to maintain profit. Yet, in the zone police see as the most crucial battleground in the war against illegal drugs – the violent street trade in crack and heroin – their efforts are best described as "symbolic".

This was the conclusion of a team of criminologists which analysed police crackdowns on the crack and heroin market between 2011 and 2014 in Southend, Plymouth and Torbay. Behind the scores of good-overcomes-evil headlines generated by police operations, in reality, the wins were not only wafer thin, but actually made things worse.

Photo: VICE

Published in the Policing and Society journal in May, the research found that crackdowns – such as raids, hotspot policing and undercover drug purchases – were often "explicitly choreographed for the mass media". They were not just about arresting drug dealers, but quelling public fears about "pushers and junkies" and sending the message that the police are in control.

Despite the triumphalist claims by police and the media that they had vanquished the "cancer" of drug dealers in the community, the researchers found these operations had no lasting impact on the local drug trade because they were "more concerned with providing reassurance to fearful residents than making meaningful arrests".

In most cases, the clampdowns had achieved the opposite of their declared intentions. Instead of sweeping up the big players, there were mass arrests of low-level vulnerable drug users. Rather than making communities safer, the clampdowns created a vacuum into which aggressive drug gangs from London and Liverpool stepped in.

"Police know full well that the market is never reduced by police action," says Neil Woods, a former drug squad officer and author of Good Cop Bad War. "Unfortunately, this understanding within the police is not translated to public perception yet. So when a disgruntled member of the public contacts their local police, or PCC, about a perceived drug problem, the only response can be a symbolic act, or merely a 'disruption'. This is a con, a game of seeing to be doing something."

It appears there are few areas of policing more symbolic than drug enforcement. The police do not utilise the same shows of force or media presence for other offences, such as burglary, theft or speeding. With dwindling police resources, why are the police so obsessed with this costly, never-ending cabaret?

"Policing is always about communication and exhibiting signals of control," says Leah Moyle, one of the authors of the study. "Given the failure of the war on drugs and its limited success in disrupting supply networks, it’s critical that the police are seen to be doing something about drug-related crime. It’s impression management."

The police are not alone in their drugs doublethink. Other elements of the state exhibit the same reaction to the drugs issue – the government’s obsession with "sending messages" in lieu of the truth, incessant media propaganda about drugs, all fuelled by a distorted moralism. It all gives off the strong whiff of what I call "narcomania" – the fevered and confused way society handles the drugs issue, where reality becomes distorted and where Lincolnshire police can tell us with a straight face about the drug testing at the Circle nightclub that "the feedback from the public on the night was also really positive. Everyone was happy to be swabbed and could see the benefits of the operation."

Now, with the spectre of oppressive drug monitoring seemingly behind us, all that is left are publicity stunts such as Lincoln. Furthermore, as police are required to go through the motions of trying to stem the undefeatable drug trade, armed with diminishing resources, drug enforcement across the board can only become increasingly tokenistic, an expensive charade perpetuated by society’s refusal to focus on the most damaging aspects of the drug trade: addiction and violence.