Cannabis campaign: A squandered opportunity

Drug tsar Keith Hellawell's White Paper misses the point, argues Graham Ball
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The Independent Online
TACKLING Drugs to Build a Better Britain, the title of drug tsar Keith Hellawell's proposals for solving the country's biggest social crisis, sounds like a spin-doctor's daydream.

The White Paper, unveiled last Monday, is long on rhetoric and short on logic. For many involved in countering drug problems, it represents a squandered opportunity.

Mr Hellawell, a former chief constable, claims his proposals will shift resources away from detection and towards prevention, in order to keep children out of the drug culture.

That is long overdue. Official figures reveal that 62 per cent of the pounds 1.4bn annual bill for drugs is spent on law enforcement compared with only 13 per cent on treatment programmes and 12 per cent on education.

But while the White Paper makes clear that the main thrust of the strategy will be directed at heroin and cocaine, which cause the greatest damage, there is no recognition of the different status of cannabis, nor detail of how the proposed transition of resources will take place.

Statistics reveal that most of the pounds 4bn worth of drug-related crime in Britain is caused by about 200,000 addicts. But the White Paper displays no new understanding of the differing patterns of drug use in our society and throws no new light on the real reasons behind Britain's growing drug habit.

Its underlying assumption appears to be that drug addiction is essentially a chemical progression, a sort of inevitable chain-reaction that propelsoccasional cannabis users through to heroin dependency. The reality is that most people who indulge in heavy opiate abuse do so for powerful sociological and economic reasons.

However, cannabis offences still form the great majority of all drug arrests, despite the fact that 85 per cent of all those charged have no criminal record.

Decriminalising cannabis will free huge sums for tackling the real problems of drugs in society and end an abuse that is doing far more damage than the drug alone could do.

Not all drug reformers feeldisappointed by the White Paper. Greg Poulter, deputy director of the drugs charity Release, said: "Keith Hellawell has not gone for headline-grabbing quick-fix solutions but unless the Treasury frees up genuinely new money there is little chance of success."

But Paul Flynn, the Welsh Labour MP who has been seeking a full Parliamentary debate on cannabis in the Commons, said: "The White Paper is no more than an exercise in finetuning the engines on the Titanic. We have the greatest amount of drug-related crime in Europe and yet this flatulent and inadequate response goes nowhere near addressing the heart of the problem of drugs in society and the absurd illegal status of cannabis in particular."

The White Paper aims to set policy for drug management for the next 10 years. Over that timespan three things are certain. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, will no longer be in office; Keith Hellawell will be comfortably retired; and drugs will continue to menace our communities. But will cannabis still be illegal a decade from now?On the evidence of the White Paper, change will need a new generation of courageous and enlightened politicians.