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OPINION-RETHINKING THE DRUGS POLICY

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It is remarkable how the news that cannabis is to be reclassified as a class C drug passed almost without attractin...
It is remarkable how the news that cannabis is to be reclassified as a class C drug passed almost without attracting controversy.

There was certainly a good deal of press comment - both for and against - but on balance the reaction was positive. Even in papers such as the Daily Mail there was no sign of the outrage one might have expected.

This no doubt reflects the more important matters now dominating the headlines. But it also indicates a desire for a more open debate about drugs policy.

The public explanation of the shift in policy was, of course, focused on the need to make better use of police time.

Containing crime relies upon members of the public co-operating with the police and this relationship of trust is undermined by asking police officers to enforce a law widely derided.

Use of cannabis is not confined to the young, or to a particular social class, but has now become almost endemic in some sections of society. Moreover its use is not associated with other crimes, and though it is undoubtedly harmful, it is arguably less so than legal drugs such as alcohol.

So imposing criminal penalties for cannabis possession merely damages respect for those who must enforce this law. Better to focus attention on drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine that are associated with 80% of acquisitive crime.

But behind this compelling pragmatic argument lies a more profound truth. Treating drug use as primarily a problem of law enforcement rather than a problem of public health has not worked. Enforcement action produces no noticeable impact on the street price of illegal drugs or the number of drug dealers. Existing policies are failing and it is time to try a different approach, but what?

Young people already know too much about drugs to accept the simple 'Just say 'no'' message that all drugs are equally harmful. But many do want to be better informed and many serious drug users want better access to treatment than is available. So a fresh approach to drugs education and rehabilitation undoubtedly has a role to play.

Equally important is the need to break the link between drugs and crime. The only effective way to do this would be by offering them free on demand through the NHS. In time, this might also help to make illegal drug use less fashionable among the young. But will any government be bold enough to take this step?

Steve Bundred

Chief executive, Camden LBC

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