If ministers want to curb violent crime in our cities, they should liberalise our failing drug laws

Ah, Camberwell. Image: Getty.

On Sunday, home secretary Amber Rudd argued that the “biggest driver” of rising violent crime was the illegal drugs market. The growth of so-called county lines gangs, often recruiting young children to transport drugs around the country, is fuelling our £5.3bn black market in cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, and more.

The violence of crimes from drug gangs is spreading outwards from our cities, with an estimated 4,000 teenagers in London alone caught up in smuggling operations. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, the share of homicides where either victim or suspect was a drug user or dealer increased from 50 per cent to 57 per cent. Competition among drug dealers has reached such a high level that some are offering loyalty cards for repeat customers.

But as politicians across the ideological spectrum discuss Band-Aid measures like tougher restrictions on buying acid and banning home deliveries of knives, the elephant in the room is our failed policy of drug prohibition.

In its recently-released Serious Violence Strategy, the Home Office inadvertently diagnoses many problems of prohibition. It correctly highlights that “grievances in illicit drug markets cannot be settled through legal channels, so participants may settle them violently. This can lead to escalation as dealers seek to portray themselves as excessively violent.”

But this is entirely avoidable: the Home Office goes on to say that “violence can be used as a way of maintaining and increasing profits within drugs markets”. In other words, the escalation happens because drugs are illegal and unregulated.

Gangs are sophisticated businesses, with strong incentives to keep their clients involved and those in their control under their thumb. Gangs in our largest cities run weapons and trafficking operations across the country. They use income from the drugs trade to finance their lifestyles, and the need to protect this feeds the firearms they trade – as seen in Liverpool where the Anfield gang jailed last year were found to be running the country’s second largest combined gun, drug and people trafficking operation with activity in rural Cheshire, Lancashire and even down to the South Coast.


The violence these gangs create is entirely the result of forcing such markets underground. Legal, regulated alcohol companies solve their disputes through competition in the marketplace, and the courts if necessary. Illegal, unregulated drug gangs often solve their disputes by the less formal methods of murdering and robbing each other.

And when police bust one gang, the resulting power vacuum can lead to heightened violence as those remaining vie for dominance. Economic evidence suggests that the introduction of medical marijuana laws (MMLs) in the USA led to a decrease in violent crime in states that border Mexico, and more wide-reaching liberalisation will have even greater effects.

But it’s not just turf wars between rival gangs that disappear under legalisation. Problem drug users are free to seek treatment without fear of arrest; campaigners are currently calling for drug consumption rooms in London, Glasgow, and elsewhere.

They are also less likely to fund their habit through theft. Washington State’s decision to legalise cannabis in November 2012 caused a reduction in thefts of between 13 per cent and 22 per cent.

Property crime is likely to plummet if other drugs were legalised and regulated according to relative harm levels: official figures show that nearly half of shoplifting, thefts, robberies and burglaries are committed by regular heroin and crack cocaine users.

Recreational users are also less likely to face violent crime. You don’t tend to get robbed at knifepoint purchasing alcohol in an off-licence, but buying cannabis in a dark alley is a different matter. Parents would no longer have to worry about the possibility that their teenage children are getting into cars with complete strangers in order to buy drugs, and any dealers who survive their market being swept away from them would face a police force with far greater resources to put them behind bars.
Last week, David Lammy MP told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that, “The police and our country has lost control of [the] drugs market.” He’s right – but more prohibition and more police on the beat won’t solve the problem of rising violent crime. The definition of insanity is continually doing the same thing and expecting different results.

But we needn’t. The state is imposing the spillover cost of violence onto estates in our cities and onto the young people caught up in gang warfare. It has the ability to take this power away from gangs and become a world leader in harm reduction. The only way to gain control of the drugs market is to make it legal and regulated.

Daniel Pryor is head of programmes at the Adam Smith Institute.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.