Pubdate: Thu, 30 Mar 2000
Source: Daily Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: 2000 Telegraph Group Limited
Contact:  (Sunday Telegraph:


THE Government proposes to ignore the recommendations of Lady Runciman's
report, Drugs and the Law. The report suggests that the penalties for the
possession of illegal drugs should be reduced, even though supplying them
would remain a serious offence. This probably is mistaken. After all, it is
the power of the criminal suppliers that is the worst thing about the
present situation. Lady Runciman's idea would be likely to have the
unintended effect of giving them an even bigger market.

Nevertheless, we are moving reluctantly to the view that Lady Runciman is
asking the right questions. The "war against drugs" of which politicians
and police officers like to speak resembles those permanent wars between
superpowers that are a feature of George Orwell's 1984: it is never won,
though its "victories" are constantly trumpeted. There is a very big demand
for drugs that cannot be curtailed by law, and there are possibilities for
supply so great that the law can do no more than push the price up.

There are several grim results of this:

*The dealers, often violent gangsters, make fortunes and take over whole
urban neighbourhoods. They also control prostitution, carry out robberies
and assaults, and, let the Chancellor note, pay no tax.

*Because the suppliers are criminals, there is no quality control. The
health risks of the drugs, in some cases great, are increased because they
are produced by bootleggers.

*Vast amounts of police time are consumed fighting the unwinnable war.
Sometimes, the police are corrupted by drug dealers. #Respect for the law
and the police is diminished because people can see that the policy does
not work.

*More and more people, despite prohibition, use drugs. Young people do not
find it hard to obtain drugs, but they do associate the drug habit with
illegality. They therefore enter a culture in which illegality is regarded
as a good, or at least a necessary thing. It is sad that hundreds of
thousands of otherwise reasonable young people are tempted into committing
a crime.

The case against the status quo is therefore strong. The counter-case goes
as follows:

*Drugs do terrible harm, and sometimes kill. If they were legal, more
people would use them: perhaps more people would die.

*Parents need legal support for their efforts to prevent their children
from taking drugs. Without that support, they would feel powerless.

*The drug "culture" is an unpleasant, stupid, amoral one against which
society should set its face. It is an attack on decency and should be

Anyone of a conservative cast of mind is bound to take these objections to
reform seriously. Few can positively like the idea of drugs becoming
accepted, and it should surely be admitted that legalisation, in the short
though not in the long term, would lead to wider consumption. Respectable
prejudice must be in favour of a society where these substances are
generally rejected.

And yet, and yet. We increasingly incline to the view that the banning of
all drugs causes more harm than good. People like substances that alter
their mood, and only strict puritans believe that they should never use any
of them. A cup of coffee, a glass of wine or beer, even the odd cigarette
are among the legitimate pleasures of life. The reason that they do not do
much harm is that they have been socialised - they are surrounded by
customs and manners and jokes and friendship and all the things which make
life tolerable. Alcohol and tobacco remain lethal, and alcohol, unlike
tobacco, has the power to destroy the character of the person who uses it:
it does so for tens of thousands of people in this country every year.

Are drugs fundamentally different? It is difficult to see why they should
be, although some, taken in certain ways, are more toxic than any legal
form of drink (heroin, for example, is a very long way indeed from half a
pint of bitter). Given that we live in an age in which the drugs of the
world have found their way to our shores, surely the truly conservative
answer to the problem is to find ways of acclimatising drugs to bourgeois
society rather than yelling vainly into the wind.

Any politician will be only too conscious how tricky this process could be
and how electorally vulnerable it could make him. The total legalisation,
licensing, medical inspection and commercial sale of all drugs to grown-ups
- - which in a way is the most logical reform - carries far too much
political risk, and could cause enormous alarm. The first thing to do is to
have a proper public debate. This is why Lady Runciman should not be
getting the brush-off from the Government.

The second thing to do, we tentatively suggest, is to experiment with
legalisation. As with the abolition of capital punishment, the thing should
be tried out for a period, so that Parliament could easily vote to restore
the penalties if the experiment failed. But on that basis, we would argue
that the Government should draw up plans to legalise cannabis - generally
accepted as the least dangerous of the drugs that are widely used - both
for its consumption and for its supply. We do not pretend that this would
lead to an end, or even a diminution, of the horrors of addiction. These,
after all, are appallingly present with legal alcohol. But we do think that
it would start to take power away from criminals, restore a respect for the
law, and encourage the drug-affected generations to grow up.
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