Britain's Drugs Crisis: Blair takes initiative as ministers tread carefully: Donald Macintyre on the political response, and below, two opposing views on legalisation

A SPEECH yesterday by Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, attacking the Government for not having a coherent strategy for dealing with the links between drugs and crime is further evidence that drug abuse is slowly assuming a higher political profile.

Do not expect senior politicians in the main political parties to lead a public debate about whether decriminalisation of hard drugs would be desirable. It is in any case an issue on which it would currently be political suicide to advocate such a policy - on the libertarian right as much as on the left. For example, at least one middle ranking minister on the right of the party has privately advocated decriminalisation of heroin in the past. For him to do so would certainly be the end of his political career. It is true that Mr Blair has been more relaxed about the prospect of a wide-ranging debate on the issue than Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who has fiercely attacked the decriminalisers. But it is neither Mr Blair's policy nor that of the Labour Party to support decriminalisation. Rather Mr Blair believes there is a strong case for an independent commission which would review, and order serious research, into methods of dealing with links between drug abuse and crime.

But what Mr Blair has consistently done in recent months is to focus attention on prevention of drug abuse and the demand side of the drug problem. All the main parties are strongly agreed on the current tough penalties for drug traffickers, including Draconian powers of asset seizure. But that tackles only supply.

Mr Blair's discussions, with British police and Lee Brown, head of the National Drugs Control Agency, have convinced him that the only radical way of curbing the rise in drug-related crime is by tackling the demand for drugs by education, prevention and treatment. This fits closely with the Labour Party's strategy of being tough on crime but also on the causes of crime. The Home Office points out that its Drugs Prevention Initiative operates effectively in 20 urban centres and has an annual budget of pounds 5.8m. Mr Blair wants a much higher priority and extensive operation for such schemes. He also argues that by ending the ring-fencing of grants to local authorities for drug treatment centres and by cuts in Drugs Education Co-ordinators, the Departments of Health and Education are reducing rather increasing prevention.

In his speech yesterday he argued cancellation of the Police Bill with a saving of pounds 20m would fund exactly the 'high-class education programme for our youth' which he argues is needed.

This is in line with a report, commissioned by the Home Office itself, from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The formation late last year of a Cabinet Committee on drug abuse, under the chairmanship of Tony Newton, the Leader of the Commons, is also seen in Whitehall as reflecting continuing differences within Whitehall about the priorities needed to tackle the problem. To take one example, there are clear differences between those who believe that the gradual phasing of addicts into methadone as a heroin substitute is desirable, and others who are deeply suspicious of such methods.

Michael Howard's decision to raise the maximum fines for possession of cannabis during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill to pounds 2,700 suggests the Government takes a uniformly hard-line view of punishment for even soft drugs.

Yet an interesting set of ideas which is developing in Scotland suggests differently. The Scottish Office - also represented on the Cabinet committee on drug misuse, has already proposed that the system of 'fiscal fines' already used for minor offences dealt with in district courts should be also be available to sheriff courts. Closely in line with this are proposals expected shortly from the Scottish Drugs Task Force headed by Lord Fraser, the Scottish Home Affairs Minister, which would include cannabis possession as one such offence.

It is true, as both Mr Howard and Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland, have pointed out, that the maximum fines are rising in Scotland too. But there is a clear difference of emphasis; fiscal fines, of say pounds 25, are not so different from parking fines, and unlike even an English caution would not be entered on a defendant's criminal record. The issue is distinct from that of whether hard drugs should be decriminalised in order to break the link with other crime, but supporters, including Bob MacLennan, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, say such penalties would help free police to deal with the real menace of hard drugs.

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