In an uncompromising speech, Michael Howard in effect closed the door on the legalisation of drugs debate. He told delegates at the Association of Chief Police Officers' conference in Wakefield: 'This Government has no intention of legalising any currently banned drug. To do so would be bound to increase the human and social damage, especially that inflicted on the young.'
He denounced those who talk about 'decriminalisation' or softening of legislation, which he said was a 'mealy mouthed' way of saying wholesale legalisation.
His speech was seen as a direct rebuke over proposals for the decriminalisation of drugs made on Wednesday by Raymond Kendall, the secretary-general of Interpol. Mr Kendall said he was in favour of giving a caution to all drug users.
Mr Howard said existing drug laws must be enforced. 'I do not believe that we can countenance a pick-and-choose attitute to law enforcement,' he said. He argued that legalisation of any drugs, including cannabis, would increase consumption and encourage new addicts.
His strong rejection follows comments by Keith Hellawell, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, and chairman of the Acpo conference, who last month said that cannabis could be legalised in the long term and urged a wider debate on the issue.
Mr Hellawell said yesterday that there was no difference between his view of law enforcement and Mr Howard's. 'Legalisation is not an issue,' he said. But if new information became available he hoped it would be considered.
When questioned about possible further discussion of the issue, Mr Howard said yesterday: 'I have looked at it (decriminalisation) but the arguments for it don't stack up.' He also emphasised that the police should usually give drug users a maximum of one caution before prosecuting.
In a hard-line speech, which received polite applause, Mr Howard described drugs abuse as 'one of the most serious problems facing our society today.'
He announced that the Home Office would be commissioning research projects later this year to try and establish the scale of the problem. Research suggests there are at least 125,000 heroin addicts in the UK and as many as 250,000 regular amphetamine users, the conference was told. In 1992 there was a 21 per cent increase from the following year in the number of registered addicts and the seizures of heroin and crack have all risen sharply last year. 'The growth of drug-related, and in particular 'crack' related violence, and the increasing use of firearms is especially worrying,' Mr Howard said. The next step in the war on drugs was to target major traffickers and street level dealers, he said.