Pubdate: Thu, 26 Jul 2001
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: Alan Travis, Home Affairs Editor
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


An influential House of Commons committee is to launch the first 
official inquiry into whether the decriminalisation of drugs should 
be introduced and whether it can work, it was announced yesterday.

The inquiry is expected to include evidence from a succession of 
senior police officers who believe that cannabis prosecutions should 
no longer be an operational priority for the police.

The inquiry, by the Commons home affairs select committee under its 
new chairman, Chris Mullin, will coincide with the end of the 
six-month experiment in Lambeth where police have said they will not 
arrest people for the possession of cannabis.

Witnesses will include the home secretary, David Blunkett, who has 
described the Lambeth operation as "an interesting experiment" and 
called for "an adult, intelligent debate" on the issue, as well as 
the lord chancellor, Lord Irvine.

Mr Mullin appealed for evidence to be submitted to his inquiry by the 
end of September. "There is a big debate going on outside parliament 
among serious people in the criminal justice system, including senior 
police officers, probation officers and members of the judiciary. 
Until now, politicians have tended to shy away from it.

"But we think the time has come for a serious assessment of the way 
we deal with drugs. We have an entirely open mind so we're not headed 
for any particular conclusion. But we hope to bring all the arguments 
into the open," said Mr Mullin, who resigned as a minister because he 
believed he could be more effective as a select committee chairman.

The inquiry will not only ask whether existing drugs policy works but 
also look at the effect of decriminalisation on the availability of 
and demand for drugs, on drug-related deaths, and on crime. The 
inquiry's terms of reference also ask: "Is decriminalisation 
desirable and, if not, what are the practical alternatives?" The MPs 
say they will look into the possible decriminalisation of all types 
of drugs and not just cannabis.

It will be the first major inquiry by the Commons into reforming the 
drugs law since the publication of the influential Police Foundation 
report last year, which called for an end to the use of criminal 
penalties for cannabis possession and the reclassification of ecstasy 
as a Class B drug.

Crime figures published this month showed that despite the growth in 
liberal rhetoric among politicians and the police, some 92,000 people 
were still convicted of possession of cannabis last year and either 
fined or cautioned. This is double the level of arrests a decade ago.

A Guardian/ICM opinion poll this month showed overwhelming public 
backing for the idea that enforcing the laws against cannabis 
possession should not be a priority for the police.

Since the election Britain's hardline "drugs tsar", Keith Hellawell, 
has been sidelined as the Home Office was given overall control of 
government drugs policy. Even Mr Hellawell has recently recanted and 
said that he no longer believes cannabis is a "gateway" drug to 
harder substances.
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