HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html 'Brixton Lights Up'
Pubdate: Sat. 07 Jul 2001
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2001 The Economist Newspaper Limited


The First Step To Decriminalising Drugs

Eighteen months ago the Police Foundation, an independent research body 
partly funded by the Home Office, warned ministers that Britain's archaic 
drugs laws were in urgent need of reform. In particular, it stressed the 
need to distinguish more sharply between the possession of soft drugs such 
as cannabis and more addictive drugs such as heroin and cocaine. At present 
possession of cannabis can be punished by up to five years in jail under 
the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. The response from government to this report, 
the most comprehensive review of drug legislation for a quarter of a 
century, was to reject it out of hand as sending out "all the wrong messages".

But suddenly things seem to be changing. A trial which has just begun in 
South London allows anyone caught with cannabis to be given an informal 
warning rather than being arrested and cautioned or prosecuted. As each 
cannabis arrest takes two police officers off the street for up to five 
hours, and the process of taking a cannabis suspect to court costs up to 
pounds10,000, the pilot scheme makes sense. A report which charted the 
cases Of 141 people arrested for cannabis possession in Lambeth last year 
found that the average fine was only pounds45 and nearly a quarter were 
given a conditional discharge.

This trial, and the publicity it has received, may have something to do 
with a change of home secretary. David Blunkett, the new home secretary, 
has said that he is in favour of the experiment. It is hard to imagine his 
predecessor, Jack Straw, saying the same.

Mr Blunkett, one of whose first actions was to sack the so-called drugs 
tsar, Keith Hellawell, seems to be aware that current policies are failing. 
One of the key targets in the ten-year national drug strategy is that 
heroin and cocaine availability should be reduced by 2008. Yet the average 
price of cocaine in Britain has fallen by 20% over a decade and that of 
heroin has fallen by up to 40% while purity has increased.

The government's previous hard line has not persuaded Britons to cut down. 
More people use cannabis in Britain than in the Netherlands, which has the 
most liberal policies on drug us in Europe. The Netherlands also has a much 
lower rate of drug-related deaths - 2.4 per million people, compared with 
Britain's 31. And whereas in Britain the average age of heroin addicts is 
25 and falling, in Amsterdam it has now risen to 36.

Meanwhile, the consensus that cannabis is relatively harmless grows. A 
report published in the British Journal of Psychiatry which looks at how 
cannabis is dealt with in the United States, the Netherlands and Australia 
says that it is not a gateway to hard-drug use. It also claims that 
decriminalisation does not increase use of cannabis. The study concludes 
that harsh laws against soft-drug use do far more harm than the odd puff of 
the weed   .

Local police commanders have been left with the task of trying to enforce a 
law which is widely regarded as contradictory and out of touch with public 
opinion. More than half of all cannabis offenders are currently released 
with a police caution, but even that means a police record.

the current uncertainty results in huge regional variations in how the drug 
laws are operated. More than 65% of those arrested for drug offences in 
London in 1999 were released with a caution compared with fewer than 18% in 
Durham. In Northamptonshire, 93% of people who were arrested for cannabis 
possession in 1997 received a caution compared to just over a third in 
Dorset for the same offence.

Decriminalisation by postcode is not a sensible answer to the drugs 
problem. The job of the police should be to enforce the law, not to make it 
up as they go along.
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