Inquiry accuses Straw of ducking debate on drugs

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The Independent Online

The head of an independent inquiry into drugs misuse, sponsored by the Government, will issue a stern rebuke to the Home Secretary today for failing to respond to recommendations for a relaxation of the drug laws.

The head of an independent inquiry into drugs misuse, sponsored by the Government, will issue a stern rebuke to the Home Secretary today for failing to respond to recommendations for a relaxation of the drug laws.

Ten months after the inquiry, set up by the Police Foundation, was published last March, the Government has still not acted, despite a request by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that it do so by last November.

At a conference in London hosted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Viscountess Runciman of Doxford will accuse Jack Straw of "cherry picking" from the report rather than engaging in a mature and responsible debate. The report sparked a fierce storm when it was published. It called for a "hierarchy of harm" to be established with clear distinctions between penalties for the hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, and soft drugs, which it said included LSD, ecstasy and cannabis.

The 11-strong inquiry panel felt the fight against heroin and cocaine was being hampered because police resources were being diverted to deal with cannabis misuse. With the backing of a chief constable, it suggested that cannabis possession should cease to be an arrestable offence and should be dealt with by fines and community orders rather than jail. Laws against trafficking, however, were to be strengthened.

Mr Straw immediately rejected the proposals for reclassifying cannabis, LSD and ecstasy but promised a more detailed response to the other proposals. That is still awaited.

At the conference, Lady Runciman will argue that the recommendations aim to make the drug laws fairer, and moreenforceable and effective. "Our proposals are firmly located in the common sense and undogmatic middle ground between unrealistic legalisation and an unwinnable 'war against drugs'. That is also the territory on which any rational debate must be conducted and where constructive change is possible. Only the Government appears as yet unready or unwilling to take part in this debate."

A Home Office spokesman acknowledged that its response to the inquiry was overdue. He denied a report that the Government was planning to reject seven of the key recommendations on the grounds that there was no evidence they would work. "We are considering our position," he said. "It is too early to say what we will agree or disagree with."