Pubdate: Sun, 23 Dec 2001
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2001 The Observer
Author: Nick Paton Walsh, The Observer
Bookmarks: (Cannabis) (Harm Reduction) (Heroin Maintenance) (Treatment)


Ministers have demanded changes to Britain's drug laws that would
allow officials to focus on the treatment rather than arrest of drug
users. In a significant change of policy, they have used the
Netherlands as a model to demand the prescription of heroin and an end
to the prosecution of people who grow cannabis for themselves.

The Home Office told Parliament last week that it had reversed the
Government's hardline stance on prosecution of drug users. Minister
Bob Ainsworth announced new elements to the drugs strategy, including:

- -  Focusing on treatment for drug users - known as 'harm minimisation'
- - rather than their prosecution 'to minimise the harm that drugs do to
individuals and their families'. Some campaigners will see the move as
effectively decriminalising possession of drugs.

- -  Advising senior police to focus on dealers, not users, asking them
to 'pay the highest regard to the more serious crimes of trafficking
and possession with intent to supply'.

- -  Government plans for new measures to prescribe heroin to

The Department of Health also told the science and technology select
committee that police should not prosecute people who grow cannabis
for their own use. This contrasts with the Home Office's
recommendations to the Runciman inquiry into drug laws which demanded
jail for growers. The offence carries a maximum sentence of 14 years
in prison.

The Home Office had insisted that a 'soft approach' to drug possession
was not an option. Experts say the Government should be seen to be
tough on drugs and related crime, while addressing the problem of
placing increasing numbers of users in jail.

Roger Howard, director of the Government-backed charity DrugScope,
said the emphasis on harm reduction was 'a pragmatic and sensible
step. The Government has recognised that a crime-led response to drug
use has not been effective and that other options must be explored.

'If this includes lesser punishments for cultivation of small amounts
of cannabis for personal use, thereby diverting trade away from
organised crime, so much the better,' he said.

A Home Office spokesman said the measures were an expansion of plans
outlined by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, last month. Although
the focus would be on 'harm minimisation', Dutch cannabis cafes were
not being considered. The Home Office 'does not want to encourage
people to smoke cannabis', she said.

'We recognise that people will always want to take drugs. We want to
make sure they have the information and help to ensure their safety.'
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