Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jul 2001
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


The deaths of two young men after an all-night London "rave" last 
week led police to make what was an extraordinary comment. They said 
the dead ravers had "normal" levels of ecstasy - a class A drug - in 
their bodies and had probably been killed by heat stroke and not a 
contaminated batch of drugs. The superintendent in charge said 
youngsters who go to raves should take lots of water, relax in 
cool-down areas and take advice on "safer drug use". There had been 
no change in the law, he stressed. Narcotics were "still illegal".

Really? That is what Tony Blair would like us to believe, and the 
statute book supports him. But the truth is that the law is no longer 
enforced in many parts of Britain. Police chiefs in London and 
elsewhere have decided that prosecuting people caught with small 
quantities of drugs, especially class B "soft" drugs, is no longer 
worth the trouble. They say it takes an inordinate amount of time and 
weakens their drive against serious crimes, which are the real cause 
of public disquiet.

So the police have decided their time is better spent combating the 
spread of class A hard drugs and the use of knives, guns, street 
robbery and burglary, much of which is drug-related. What's the 
point, they ask, of spending thousands of pounds of police time 
taking young people found with cannabis to court when all the 
magistrates do is fine the offenders an average of =A345? They are now 
going to run an experiment in south London's multiracial Brixton 
area, where young people will be ticked off instead of prosecuted. If 
it works, other parts of Britain can be expected to follow suit.

Did anybody tell the prime minister? No 10's response to the police 
decision in Brixton is to say there are no plans to decriminalise or 
declassify cannabis. Indeed, Mr Blair laid great stress last week on 
the government's decision to tighten the bail restrictions on people 
who take drugs or deal in them. By that, he meant suspects arrested 
for serious offences who are found to be drug users, even if the drug 
is cannabis. That leaves us with the position, which those who 
believe in "zero tolerance" must find absurd, of police going easy on 
cannabis users who do not commit other offences while taking a much 
tougher line on those who do.

But zero tolerance of all drugs has had its day, as Ann Widdecombe 
learnt to her cost when she proposed it at the last Conservative 
conference. The middle class does not want its children criminalised 
for possession and is confused about the seriousness of the offence. 
It was easier when experts insisted that cannabis abuse frequently 
led to cocaine and heroin addiction. That is no longer the case. 
Keith Hellawell, the government's globe-trotting drug czar, has done 
a somersault and now doubts whether cannabis is the gateway to harder 

No wonder the war against drugs is being lost; some say it already 
has been. We cannot afford the law to be made an ass in this area. 
Too many lives are blighted and too many families are destroyed by 
drugs. London's drug trade is reckoned to be the city's third-biggest 
business after finance and tourism. Billions of pounds gush around 
the criminal circuits that control the trafficking. Scotland's drug 
enforcement agency busted 50 gangs last year, but nobody claims it 
makes much difference.

The present strategy is in disarray. David Davis, a Tory leadership 
candidate, has already called for an open debate and the government 
should respond. It dismissed the Runciman report urging a new 
approach, but the case for radical thinking is growing and may soon 
be irresistible. Legalised cannabis would do more to disrupt gangs 
that monopolise drug supplies than any current legislation. Quality 
controls could be imposed, and a more persuasive campaign could be 
launched against drug abuse. That has to be balanced against still 
genuine fears that it would lead to wider use of those harder drugs. 
Either way, Mr Blair must accept that liberalisation by stealth of 
soft drugs is not the answer. The government needs to make up its 
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MAP posted-by: Josh Sutcliffe