Even the police can see that all drugs need to be legalised

`Prohibition has exacerbated all the problems associated with drug misuse'
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ON LAST night's Panorama, Francis Wilkinson joined the TV satirist Mark Thomas, Edward Ellison, former head of Scotland Yard's Drug Squad, and the author Iain Banks, in becoming a patron of a national campaign to legalise all drugs.

The startling thing about this is that Mr Wilkinson recently retired from his post as Chief Constable of Gwent Constabulary. His decision to join Transform, the campaign for effective drug policy, makes him the highest-ranking officer to support legalising all drugs. Although much has been made of his stand, he is not the first chief constable to call for a complete rethink of our drug policy.

To quote a former colleague of his: "The current policies are not working. We seize more drugs, we arrest more people, but when you look at the availability of drugs, the use of drugs, the crime committed because of and through people who use drugs, the violence associated with drugs, it's on the increase. It can't be working." - Keith Hellawell in 1994, then Chief Constable for West Yorkshire, now the UK's Drug Tsar.

There are about 300,000 heroin addicts in this country, committing about half of all property crime. We have 12 million tobacco addicts, committing none of it. The reason for this is economics. The price of illegal drugs is determined by a totally unregulated market with an enormous demand and a limited supply. While we are able to intervene in the legal market, the global illegal one is left to organise itself, to the tune of nearly pounds 1bn a day.

Prohibition has exacerbated all the problems associated with drug misuse and has unnecessarily criminalised recreational users. The Misuse of Drugs Act means that police officers are increasingly being asked to deal with what has become an epidemic and endemic activity.

As the prevalence of drug use and misuse has risen, so have the problems associated with enforcing drug laws that have remained unchanged for almost 80 years. As a result of this increase an intolerable burden is being placed on our police forces. It is an expensive and totally ineffective method of dealing with drugs.

Legalisation would mean returning the illegal trade to the legal methods of distribution: over the counter, prescription, chemists and licensed retail outlets. What is needed is a forum to examine what drugs, on the basis of their toxicity and context of production and use, should go into which category of distribution and regulation.

This is not a cure-all. People will still become addicted and some will die as a result of using drugs. However, as with alcohol, the vast majority of users will cause few or no problems either to themselves or to others. This is not a shot in the dark. The Dutch have a long history of allocating resources to social programmes, rather than enforcement. The average age of heroin users in Holland is 39 and rising; in the UK it is 26 and falling; while comparable rates of cannabis use exist in both countries.

What is surprising is that more police officers, lawyers, prison governors and magistrates do not speak out against the status quo. I find it hard to believe that anyone dealing with users in the criminal justice system could see any benefit in criminalising the production, supply and use of potentially dangerous psychoactive substances. The Home Office has consistently failed to provide that evidence; indeed the National Treatment Outcomes Research Study found that for every pounds 1 spent on treatment we save pounds 3 on criminal justice expenditure. How much are we wasting on criminal justice initiatives?

The Prince's-Trust-funded Police Foundation is holding an inquiry into the efficacy of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It seems that everyone but Jack Straw thinks that it may not be working too well. Indeed, Tony Blair's call for mandatory drug-testing of offenders, and refusal of bail for those who test positive for cocaine or heroin, seems to fly in the face of the "treatment works" message. In any case, the police are making their own decisions about when to operate the drugs laws and when to operate a more pragmatic approach to dealing with drug law offenders. Recent key performance indicators from the Home Office point to the Government's focus on heroin- and cocaine-dealers, but the police still do not have a national drug strategy.

So, why don't more police officers speak out for reform? On Radio 4 recently, the journalist John Humphrys suggested a reason why key players keep quiet when he said: "I reckon that at least half the senior politicians that I know privately believe that certain kinds of drugs should at the very least be decriminalised. Many would go much further. They dare not even hint that there ought to be a reasoned and rational debate about it because the minute they do, there will be headlines 15 seconds later - `Minister X says let's feed cocaine to all new babies'." Many sections of the press are far more reasonable than that, but the fear of it is real.

However, serving police officers have spoken out. One of the force's most respected senior officers, Commander John Grieve, of Scotland Yard, said in 1994: "If the [drug] problem continues advancing as it is at the moment, we're going to be faced with some very frightening options. Either you have a massive reduction in civil rights as you try to drive the problem underground, or you have to look at some radical solutions. The issue has to be, can a criminal justice system solve this particular problem?" The answer to that question is No, and an increasing number of officers are well aware of it, too.

I hope that Mr Wilkinson's stand will encourage a serving chief constable or senior minister to admit in public what many of them say in private - that drug enforcement has failed, and we should exercise our compassion and reason rather than operating out of fear and ignorance.

The writer is director of Transform, which campaigns for effective drug policy