As users of hard drugs push up the crime rate, a partnership approach seems to be the only way forward. Jack Hurst looks at the problem and suggests that the insurance industry has a part to play in the solution....

After Ann Widdecombe's zero tolerance policy on cannabis went up in smoke, the debate over legalising the drug has gathered momentum. With an estimated one million cannabis users in the UK and eight Shadow Cabinet members having confessed to trying it in their youth, the pressure is on to reform the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

The latest crime figures show that although numbers of burglaries have reduced, property crime still accounts for 4.4 million recorded offences each year, costing insurers around £1.2bn. One third of these offences are thought to be drug-related. Actual numbers of offences are far higher as many crimes are either not reported or are not recorded by the police.

Recent research suggests that the problem of drug related crime lies not so much with recreational drug users who generally fund their drug purchases by legitimate means, but with the minority who go on to the hard drugs of heroin, cocaine and methadone. Users will often take all three of these drugs and combine them with relaxants such as cannabis and alcohol to manage the "post-high" effects. For regular users, the annual cost averages around £20,000, with some serious users spending more than £100,000 each year.

A study in Sheffield showed that hard drugs quickly penetrate the poorest parts of cities. At around £20 for a "rock" of crack cocaine and £10 for a shot of brown heroin, regular hard drug use is well beyond the income provided by state benefits and casual work. Most regular users therefore resort to theft (particularly shoplifting and burglary), drug dealing or prostitution.

A Manchester University report found that hard drug users, on average, spend 75% of their income on drugs. Not all crime by drug users is directly attributable to drugs though. As one 22-year-old male drug taker said: "I would be committing crime anyway. It's just that I've chosen to spend the proceeds on drugs." There is also evidence that not only does drug dependency lead to crime but that habitual crime can lead to excessive drug use. However, the report finds that thefts by reformed drug users reduce by 40%, dealing in drugs by 75% and prostitution by virtually 100%.

Getting away with it
The conviction rates for crime in inner cities are notoriously low with under 3% of crimes even resulting in a caution. Despite this, the Manchester study indicates that 56% of hard drug users had received a conviction in the preceding two years and 30% had an imminent court hearing where they expected to receive a custodial sentence. These figures suggest that improving conviction rates alone is unlikely to impact greatly on drug-fuelled inner city crime.
For many, the prospect of a custodial sentence is just an occupational hazard. In addition, policing prostitution and dealing by user-dealers more heavily may just lead to an increase in theft and burglary as users look for alternative sources of income.

Tracking down hard drug users in order to assess the scale of the problem is particularly difficult. Those who live in a subterranean world dominated by drugs and crime are not just paranoid – acute anxiety and paranoia are common symptoms of regular hard drug use – the world really is out to get them. Possessing Class A drugs, supplying them and resorting to crime to fund the habit makes them not only a justifiable target for the police but also for a welter of officials targeting benefit fraud, rent arrears, council tax evasion, unpaid hire purchase and other debts. However, latest Home Office research suggests there are between 85,000 and 215,000 "problem hard drug users" in the UK, while the EU Drugs Agency reckons there are 1.5 million throughout the EU.

It's come a long way
From research among those on treatment programmes it is clear that the use of hard drugs has proliferated since heroin first hit the cities in a big way in the early 1980s, followed soon after by crack cocaine. Many of these inner city clusters, by attracting mainly under-educated, unemployed young men, have multiplied into major outbreaks, contributing to a social sub-class on the margins of society and resulting in most cities having major crime black-spots.

Dealing in hard drugs has become more sophisticated. Increased police surveillance and CCTV have reduced the volume of street trading so dealers now frequently use youngsters and mobile phones to provide a home delivery service. Users can often obtain supplies from several different sources so police targeting small-time dealers is not particularly effective at reducing the supply.

The cost of hard drug abuse is not just measurable in terms of property stolen. It overloads the criminal justice, social security and health systems and causes emotional stress and fear to the victims of crime. Research by the University of Surrey found that one in 20 victims takes more than five days off work after a burglary.

The cost to the individual drug user is also high, with increased risk of violence, imprisonment and ill health. Mortality rates are, on average, up to 30 times higher than for the same age group of the general population. In the words of one 22-year-old female drug user, "There's nothing good about it. It just f***s your life, swallows your money and kills your pride."

Dependence on drugs can be physical, psychological or both; but the longer the usage, the greater the dependency. Researchers have found that the final defence for many drug users is that they do not want to give up because they have nothing else to live for. For some others, signing on, casual work, petty crime and "doing deals" is part of an urban macho lifestyle that they are reluctant to relinquish.

Groups campaigning to solve the real problem of drug abuse and the crime that goes with it argue that regeneration of the most deprived areas of towns and cities is the answer rather than politicians' carefully crafted sound bites and confessions of youthful misdemeanours. The government has responded with the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund which will channel £800m directly to 88 of the poorest communities over three years, many of which are close to prosperous city centres. The biggest grants will go to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool which, between them, will receive £125m to spend on extra teachers, police officers, drug and crime prevention programmes, social services and other community projects.

Putting heads together
To qualify for the grants the local authorities must get the support of local businesses to work with them in officially recognised Local Strategic Partnerships. The idea is to improve housing, education, employment opportunities and healthcare and thereby to tackle the underlying social problems which encourage drug abuse and crime.

By participating in these partnerships and by providing affordable insurance cover, the insurance industry has an opportunity to play its part to bring about this change and so reduce the high levels of crime which blight these areas. Certainly, unless the government, industry and the communities themselves make a concerted effort it will be more than Ann Widdecombe's good intentions that will have gone to pot.