Cannabis vote a reflection of public mood: The decriminalisation call by Liberal Democrats is not as radical as some watchdogs maintain, Heather Mills reports

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THE BIGGEST consumers of illegal drugs are, a new survey says, from the middle and professional classes. So it is perhaps not surprising that the first major party to vote for the decriminalisation of cannabis use is the Liberal Democrats.

Despite Monday's vote having incensed party leaders, the delegates are not as far out of step with the electorate as Paddy Ashdown might believe. The Home Office survey, the most detailed of drug use, also found one in three people in favour of decriminalisation.

Decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation: it means reducing penalties for possession or use of cannabis to the equivalent of perhaps a parking fine, therefore remaining an offence but not attracting a criminal record. So the Liberal Democrats were not being quite so radical as headlines yesterday suggested.

Nevertheless, it is a step further than Labour would dare tread and a giant leap from the government's stance. This year, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, moved in the other direction, announcing a five-fold increase in fines for cannabis possession, to pounds 2,500.

The fact that the political parties are so frightened of tabloid press reaction - even though some MPs are privately in favour of legalistion and smoke cannabis themselves - means that the debate has been muted.

But a growing number of policemen and others in the justice system have been prepared to put their heads over the parapet. Last year, Lord Woolf, a Law Lord said it was time to consider controlled legalisation, and Raymond Kendall, the head of Interpol, called for the decriminalistion of drug use. Both were talking about hard drugs, not just cannabis.

The reason: an acceptance that despite massive resources going into law enforcement, the battle against drugs is being lost. The UN has admitted that the multi- million-pound world-wide effort to stop cultivation and trafficking has failed, with new drug routes opening up all the time.

Conservative estimates put the illicit business in the UK alone at about pounds 3bn. The number of addicts has increased fivefold in the last 10 years to 28,000; seizures of hard drugs such as cocaine, crack and heroin have tripled; the number of drug offenders has more than doubled, to 56,000. A wide variety of drugs is readily available in school playgounds and even 10- year-olds are experimenting with solvents, cannabis, sleeping pills and hallucinogens.

As the Prime Minister accepted in his 'yob culture' speech last week, drug-related crime is spiralling. The inner cities are witnessing drug-related violence on unprecedented scales and police forces around the country estimate that addicts and users may be responsible for between one-third and one-half of the pounds 4bn worth of property crime.

Against this background, on any given day about 2,000 of the country's 50,000 prisoners will have been convicted of cannabis- related offences. Their detention will cost the tax payer about pounds 450 a week. On top come the huge costs to the police and the courts of pursuing a prosecution. Speakers to the Liberal Democrats' conference asked: 'Is it a good way of spending limited resources?' 'Would not funds be better targeted at hard-drug dealers?'

The estimated spending on drug use and abuse is broken down to about 65 per cent enforcement, 35 per cent education prevention and rehabilitation. Those calling for greater decriminalisation or limited legalisation says the priorities should be reversed - take away the demand and the market dries up.

But with the Liberal Democrats leaders dissociating themselves from their delegates, Labour suggesting that the 'legalisation' debate was a diversion from the government's failure to tackle substance abuse, and Mr Major promising a three-year attack on drug abuse and crime, there was no indication yesterday that any party would radically alter spending priorities.

Leading article, page 17

(Photograph omitted)

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