'Operation Audacious' Shows We Need to Count the Costs of Drug Law Enforcement

Yesterday, hundreds of police officers carried out dawn drugs raids, serving one hundred warrants in three districts in Manchester, and addresses in Bolton, Stockport and Salford.

Yesterday, hundreds of police officers carried out dawn drugs raids, serving one hundred warrants in three districts in Manchester, and addresses in Bolton, Stockport and Salford.

'Operation Audacious' was a success, according to the Greater Manchester Police and others. A success in that arrests have been made, public calls for action on street dealers have been heard and acted upon, and in that a clear message has been sent.

But two important questions arise: Are these really measures of success in relation to drugs? And what about tomorrow?

As far as local communities are concerned, a substantial number of street dealers, possibly really nasty people that have been causing serious problems in their areas, have been arrested. There is no problem with that, and locals will surely see this as a success.

The police, for their part, are there to enforce the law, so as far as Greater Manchester Police are concerned, and based on their own targets, yesterday certainly was a success.

But let us be clear, neither of these has any bearing on drug use, dependence and related health harms.

This is more than a little worrying, because these concerns are the reason we have criminal laws relating to drugs. They are the reason there is a criminal drug market there to be populated by dealers and to cause genuine concern to communities. They are the justification for yesterday's raids. According to Chief Superintendent Russ Jackson, Divisional Commander for North Manchester "Cracking down on drugs in our communities is a big priority for GMP and I hope today shows the people of Manchester just how seriously we are committed to this cause...we are determined to root out all those involved in this trade, from the addicts to the sellers to those who are bringing the drugs in".

So if law enforcement is not having an impact on drug use, dependence and social and health harms, then what is drug law enforcement for? And where does it sit in relation to broader drug policy priorities?

And so we come to the second question - what about tomorrow? How many more large scale operations, dawn raids, arrests, prosecutions with so little to show for it?

75 people were arrested yesterday, forty-four charged. According to the Greater Manchester Police, "£2k worth of class A drugs, 15 blocks of cannabis, 20 bags of cannabis, a cannabis farm, stolen jewellery and a batch of stolen meat" were seized.

Two thousand pounds worth of Class A drugs is a small amount. The rest is cannabis, which, aside from the criminal market surrounding it is one of the less harmful of currently illicit drugs. It is a small vacuum, which, in the absence of any reduction in demand, of which there is none, will be filled very quickly indeed. The next entrepreneurs in the queue will fill any temporary void left by those charged.

Asking if operations like 'Audacious' are winning the long game isn't to single out any one operation or police force. It's one of many such crackdowns, including one in London last month attended by Boris Johnson.

But neither is it an unreasonable policy question. After all, the raids have taken months of planning, and involved specialist tactical officers, mounted and canine units, divisional and neighbourhood officers, firearms teams and drug workers in case any of those arrested have drug dependence problems. Add to all this, the Crown Prosecution Service to advise on charging. Seventy-two people have been arrested. Processing those arrested will further add to the cost, and we are all well aware of the expense of running those that have been charged through the criminal justice system and housing those that receive a custodial sentence.

This is a massive undertaking in terms of human and financial resources. So what would a cost-benefit analysis of this operation and the laws and policies that underpin it conclude?

Local communities may feel safer. Forty four people have been charged and potentially taken off the streets for a while. This is part of the equation, and an important one. But we have to ask what this operation is for, or premised upon. This was a drug raid, and arrests don't reflect success in drug policies. They're a measure of effort.

Operation Audacious is representative of the positive feedback loop we've gotten ourselves into where fighting the drug trade is success enough. It is an expensive and circular dynamic which can lead nowhere long term.

By all means let's seek out, arrest and prosecute those causing harm to our communities. By all means answer pleas from locals to deal with violent criminals. But when it comes to success in drug control we need an evaluation of operations like Audacious and drug law enforcement generally using indicators that get to the root of why we enforce drug laws in the first place.

Operation Audacious is one of many raids we all paid for, so let's have answers. We need to count the costs. After all, tomorrow will come soon enough.

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