inequality‘Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life
Because a mainline to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I’m better off than dead..’


Yesterday I sat down to write this week’s column; as I was writing a feeling of déjà vu, and boredom came over me. I realised that what bores the writer must also bore the reader – writes Philip Gilbert


It wasn’t a bad piece, but it was ‘samo, samo’. Yes, there was commentary on the government’s awful handling of the pandemic, but we have covered that ad nauseum.

There was the later Brexit ‘victims’, unhappy fisherman, and, according, to Jacob Rees Mogg, happy fish. Not forgetting the residents living near the white cliffs of Dover which will soon be home to a 1200 vehicle lorry park.


this week I wish to put a new issue in front of you, the war on drugs


When I retired the previous column, I did so with a sense of the need for change, a more positive mood descended upon me. C-19, whilst not yet vanquished, has been overcome by science (vaccine). Trump had been replaced by Biden who comes with a message of unity and peaceful coexistence. Whether he succeeds is down to the hard-right.

In the longer-term, as in the UK, he needs to address the cause of the majority of Trump supporters, that of income inequality. I feel more bullish for the US than for ourselves, we are too steeped in the past, the Tories are too clever at reinventing themselves with policies that appear to care, and I remain unconvinced that Labour knows what to do to appeal to the majority of the electorate.

However, this week I wish to put a new issue in front of you, the war on drugs. Now, before I am met with howls of indignation, this is not endorsing the use of drugs in anyway, it is simply commentary on what has gone on, and why.

Let’s address the facts.

Firstly, since 1971, when Nixon, the incumbent president, announced ‘the war on drugs’, it has cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion. It is estimated that the US spends more than $51 billion annually on fighting this war. (1)


  • In 1980 580,900 people were arrested on drug‐​related charges in the US.
  • By 2014, that number had increased to 1,561,231.
  • More than 700,000 of these arrests in 2014 were related to marijuana.
  • Nearly half of the 186,000 people serving time in federal prisons in the United States are incarcerated on drug‐​related charges. (2)


As Prohibition in the US proved if people want to consume something they will. Whatever the law says if there is demand someone will match that with supply. The more underground that supply is the more profit there is for those prepared to take their chances in meeting the demand.

For the suppliers, the numbers involved are eye-watering. In his book ‘Zero, Zero, Zero,’ Robert Saviano says:


  • In the case of Wachovia Bank in the US, he wrote that from 2004 several billion dollars were moved from the Sinaloa cartel ‘cash box’ to Wachovia bank accounts. Saviano says, ‘it emerges that for three years the bank did not respect money-laundering protocols when transferring $378.4 billion. Of this at least $110 million were from drug trafficking, which had entered international banking circuits in this way.’
  • He added, ‘about $13 million were deposited and transferred to Wachovia accounts to purchase aeroplanes for drug trafficking. More than 20 tons of cocaine was seized from these planes.’
  • Saviano also quotes Jennifer Shasky Calvery, when she gave her testimony to the US Congress on the 8th February 2012, ‘As evidence of transnational organised crime’s (TOC) global economic might, one need only consider the most recent estimates of the amount of money laundered in the global financial system – $1.6 trillion, of which an estimated $580 billion is related to drug trafficking and other TOC activities, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s research report published in 2011.
  • The cocaine business is analogous to terrorism, which it resembles in many ways, and with which it overlaps in many cases. The IRA, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organisations finance themselves in part from drug dealing, these secretive and illegal organisations, are ideally placed to work with cocaine distributors.


Alcohol and cigarettes still kill more people than drugs, although they are readily accessible on any high street.

Some years when I used to run our dog round the local country park every morning, I would see the same gentleman going into a local shop. He wasn’t poorly dressed, always said good morning, and always smelt of cigarettes and alcohol. Each morning he was going to buy his bottle of whisky.

His problem wasn’t supply, it was the control of the supply. It was obvious to me and the local shopkeeper that he was drinking himself to death. He wasn’t going to stop but had his supply been controlled he might have slowed down or moderated his in-take.

People mistake drugs as being socially unacceptable when often it isn’t the case. Heroin and crack might be derided as drugs of the ‘street’, whereas Cocaine is the drug of choice for the ‘smart set’.


People mistake drugs as being socially unacceptable when often it isn’t the case


Only it isn’t smart; not for nothing did David Bowie call the mid-1970s ‘the darkest days of my life’ due to ‘astronomical’ usage of cocaine and amphetamines. (3) Or, of his 1976 masterpiece, ‘Station to Station’, he said that he had no recollection of writing, recording, or producing this album, he considers it ‘a piece of work by an entirely different person’

Drug users aren’t all ‘young’. Two people I worked with, both of a similar age to me used drugs. One was a weekend user of Coke, the other smoked dope, which, is his blog, he bragged about smoking with his son at a festival. In my view, both are sad and pathetic.

In 2019-20 it is estimated that the UK had 3-million users, of whom 5,657 died, a four-fold increase from 2013. In Scotland, the death rate is three and a half times that of the whole UK and is the worst in Europe.

50-years ago the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed, which was meant to stamp out illegal drugs for ever. Far from achieving this, along with the stats quoted above, we can add the fact that drug business enslaves an estimated 27,000 children and teenagers, some as young as eight, in ‘county lines’ drug gangs. How does the government deal with this? It throws a few of them in jail.


‘The Home Office is terrified not of the facts, but of the tabloid press’


‘The Home Office is terrified not of the facts, but of the tabloid press’.  20-years ago the Runciman committee on reforming the drug laws advised that cannabis be reduced to a class C drug, which Tony Blair’s government reluctantly did before reversing the decision. As a journalist wrote, ‘I will never forget the fury of the well-dressed Stepney dealer who told us he wanted to ‘do me out of living’.

Since then, other ways of dealing with the drug problem has been trialed with the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal leading in Europe, and with the US and Canada across the Atlantic. For marijuana, the big change has been its medicinal use. Medicinal cannabis is now legal in most countries.

The UK, somewhat reluctantly, followed in 2018 after a media campaign for two epileptic children forced the Home Office to license the drug for serious pain relief. However, recent figures confirm that not a single NHS prescription for cannabis has yet been allowed. British sufferers must still seek relief abroad.

Nor are we any more sympathetic on hard drugs, as the government banned Glasgow from opening a safe drug-user centre to help combat the city’s hard drug crisis.

15 US states as well as Canada have licensed recreational cannabis, fueling a booming $16bn industry. Over here its subtly different, we have gangs and county lines, servicing an illegal industry, estimated by Carol Black for the Home Office, to be worth £9.4bn p.a.

In the last 2-years, local pilot schemes, in Durham, Thames Valley, and the West Midlands have been offering rehabilitation classes, rather than arrests, for drug possession. An approach also embraced by West Yorkshire and London. In some of these areas a 20% of all crimes and 50% of property crime are said to be drug-related, as is most knife crime.


In some of these areas a 20% of all crimes and 50% of property crime are said to be drug-related, as is most knife crime


Only recently, Arfon Jones, the North Wales police commissioner, highlighted the fact that our own prisons are the finishing school and nurseries of drug abuse, with drug busts last year totaling 21,575, and increase of 18%. Jones suggested that, with thousands of prisoners now drug addicts, it would make sense, and be safer, to let them have cannabis legally.

The government’s response is still ‘zero tolerance’, which is unenforceable, and why we have seen a de facto decriminalisation resulting in a 75% slump in possession cases over the past decade. As foreign experience shows, it is only when an illegal market is replaced by proper regulation and control of supply that the dangers of drug abuse can be tackled. As the US has found, users will move on to hard drugs, if not controlled. For this reason, Oregon has decriminalised both heroin and cocaine.

There are other, often overlooked side effects to zero tolerance and making drugs illegal.


‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.’


For example, comparing how information is transferred when a drug is legal compared to illegal uncovers dangerous issues. Should a consumer become ill due to mis-labelled or impure versions of legal, over-the-counter medication, this information is reported, collected, and analysed by relevant institutions. In addition, consumers are alerted, and the drug is usually recalled.

For illegal drugs, due to their covert distribution, there is no such process. Dealers aren’t the type to offer refunds or advice. Instead, users are either poisoned or overdose.

Illegality means that dealers prefer the higher profits offered by harder drugs, e.g., heroin compared to marijuana. In addition, drug dealers will tend to sell more potent versions of drugs, e.g., selling marijuana with higher concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is more profitable.

Users are likely to follow this finding that harder drugs are more ‘effective’, which again can lead to increased drug overdoses.

I readily accept that this is an emotive subject, however after 50-years of the war on drugs and zero tolerance the words of Albert Einstein come to mind:

‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.’


‘You get under my skin
I don’t find it irritating
You always play to win
But I won’t need rehabilitating, oh no’



  2. Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Department of Justice, ‘Prisoners in 2015,’ December 2016, https://​www​.bjs​.gov/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​p​u​b​/​p​d​f​/​p​1​5.pdf; Drug Policy Alliance, ‘Drug War Statistics,’ 2016, http://​www​.drug​pol​i​cy​.org/​d​r​u​g​-​w​a​r​-​s​t​a​t​i​stics; and Drug War Facts, ‘Crime, Arrests, and US Law Enforcement,’ 2016,


  1. Buckley, David (1999). Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story (1st ed.). London: Virgin. pp. 258–75. ISBN 1-8522-7784-X.


Another departure for this week’s column; afeared of being accused of serving up a repetitive compendium of Covid cock-ups and Boris/Brexit balls-ups, Philip decided to take the opportunity to explore a single issue in greater depth as he describes in his introduction.

With his fears for the future of the US abating, at least pro tem, in the afterglow of Joe Biden’s inauguration, Philip has a list of pithy topics in his cross-hairs and nobody will accuse him of easing himself in gently by choosing the war on drugs as an opening gambit.

The scale of the challenge is immediately apparent by the huge sums of money and massive growth involved and the reader’s perspective will inevitably be skewed by their personal exposure to and experience of the drugs ‘industry’; or indeed whether they have never been impacted. 

Few will gasp at the revelation that the banks have not been averse to looking after some of the industry’s ill-gotten gains, and those that have plied their trade in and around the sector since the days of the whale-tail Porsche and the Nokia brick will attest to the fact that those in the casinos are not the only busy dealers in the Square Mile.

When Philip says ‘heroin and crack might be derided as drugs of the ‘street’, whereas cocaine is the drug of choice for the ‘smart set’ he neatly frames at least part of the problem; whether aimed at junkies or ‘recreational’ drug users, the rewards can be huge, and the the supply chain grotesque.

Without going as far as suggesting that drug lords might be encouraged to take over some of the many empty retail units on the high street and spark a renaissance based upon quality controlled and regulated ‘product’, any attempt to decouple hard and soft drugs could surely play a role in preventing those ‘graduating’ their way to oblivion.

Philip’s article comes in the week that Dame Cressida Dick admitted that ‘young teen’ children were being used as informants and have assisted in more than 500 arrests for ‘county line’ offences; it may not be a comfortable topic, and neither does Philip seek to in any way condone drug use – he merely suggests that if one approach has proven ineffective over a period, maybe its time to look with a fresh pair of eyes.

For those craving a lyric fix, Philip has chosen a couple of excellent tracks – your score being for personal use only – first up a track that sounds as fresh as a daisy despite being written 56 (!) years ago – Velvet Underground and ‘Heroin’, then a mere stripling at 43 years old – The Only Ones and ‘Another Girl Another Planet’.

Then there’s a little gift to The Disgusteds of (insert here) – ‘Drugs? how ghastly. Grubby little skag heads. We just get the occasional pick me up from this nice young chap we’ve met’. Its a wrap. 



inequalityPhilip Gilbert is a city-based corporate financier, and former investment banker.

Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s


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