Cannabis debate clouding major issues, says Hellawell

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Indy Politics

Drugs Tsar Keith Hellawell today blamed recent debates over the legalisation of cannabis for clouding the "major issues" of the Government's drugs strategy as he prepared to publish his third and final report.

Mr Hellawell was appointed as a US–style anti–drugs co–ordinator after the 1997 general election but has been sidelined since David Blunkett took over as Home Secretary.

Today, he said there had been "good progress" on the Government's 10–year drugs strategy, but added that many "worried parents" were not sure what that strategy was about because of recent arguments over the legalisation of cannabis.

Last month, Mr Blunkett issued the clearest signal yet that policy on the legalisation of cannabis could eventually change, and called for an "adult, intelligent" debate on the issue, echoing comments made earlier by Mr Hellawell.

But Mr Hellawell said today: "Sometimes, some of the debate which suggests that we are going to change policy on some of these substances almost encourages children to be attracted to these substances."

He told BBC1 Breakfast News that although he did not suggest that the recent debate encouraged children actually to take drugs, it "leaves the door open" if people they respected suggested that using drugs was not something to worry about.

"Cannabis is not the major issue at all," said Mr Hellawell. "The major issue is the attractiveness of substances to our children."

Mr Hellawell, a former Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, said his report, being published later today, would show that there was "good progress" on the major issues of the 10–year strategy.

"More children are being educated in our schools. More people with drugs problems are being treated, that's both within and out of the criminal justice system," he said.

"As far as treatment in the criminal justice system, we have saved or reduced substantial amounts of crime.

"More people are being arrested and more drugs seized, particularly Class A drugs, which are the drugs that cause the major harm in our community."

Mr Blunkett has already ordered police to concentrate on targeting heroin and crack cocaine dealers rather than cannabis users.

One of Mr Blunkett's first actions as Home Secretary was to sideline Mr Hellawell by making his appointment part–time.

The Home Office said Mr Hellawell would focus on international aspects of drug policy, while Mr Blunkett would take over his role of co–ordinating national policy on drugs.

Mr Hellawell, 59, was reputed to be one of the highest–paid special advisers in Whitehall, earning £106,000 a year, but was criticised in Whitehall as ineffective.

Today, he said recent debates over cannabis only made his job more difficult.

He said: "One of the problems I have is that people and parents who worry are not sure what the strategy is.

"If they read the newspapers they would believe the whole issue is about cannabis.

"The real issue is getting involved with the children for them to understand the substances, and that is what we are doing.

"We have been enormously successful over the last 12 months since we changed our strategy and that success will continue to increase and improve and will make a difference.

"But it will take time. It will make a difference but ... it is not going to take place overnight."

There is currently an unprecedented debate on the future of UK drug laws, which was bolstered last week when the all–party Commons Home Affairs Select Committee announced it would hold an investigation into decriminalisation of hard and soft drugs this autumn.

Police in Brixton, south London, have become the first in Britain formally to "turn a blind eye" to possession of small amounts of cannabis – they now deal with it with an official warning rather than arrest.

Danny Kushlick, director of drug law reform campaign group Transform, said: "The Government's flagship drug policy is in tatters.

"The newly–demoted drug Tsar publishes his final annual report amidst an unprecedented clamour for alternatives to totally failed policies.

"For years now the Government has announced that the national strategy is working and that it is just a question of time before we all see the results.

"Meanwhile though, the price of street drugs continues to fall, purity rises and drug–related crime spirals out of control."

Mr Hellawell told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that his report showed that drug use was "levelling off", although he acknowledged there were "worrying trends" in relation to drug use among young people.

"The figures suggested that there was an increase in the experimentation and use of drugs, a very small increase in one group of young people, but the reality was that the overall drug use in this country seems to have levelled off," he said.

"There are worrying trends, particularly in relation to cocaine, and there are worrying trends in relation to young people being attracted to these substances.

"What we've got to do with that is not to throw our hands up and say 'we will legalise them all', but it is actually to get involved in long term educational programmes."

He ruled out renewed recent calls to de–criminalise cannabis.

"If you regulate it and restrict availability to everyone who would like these substances then you are going to maintain and continue with the criminality, the only way you would take the whole thing out of the criminal justice system is to actually say we will legalise everything and make it available to everybody," Mr Hellawell told the programme.

"Even the most fervent legalisers would not suggest that these substances should be available to young people.

"Once you begin to control and restrict in any way you are still going to get the attraction and you are still going to get the criminal element involved."

Francis Wilkinson, former chief constable of Gwent and patron of the drugs charity Transform, criticised the Government's "prohibitary" drugs policy, telling the Today programme: "It's always been a fallacy to imagine that police and customs together can control a business that has grown to be the second or largest international business in the world.

"The sooner that the Government can accept that its strategy has had no impact whatever and that the only way of having a proper impact is by having regulation of the drugs industry, just as we have regulation of the alcohol industry and the tobacco industry ... as soon as they recognise that's the only way to make progress, the better."

The British system in the 1970s of providing heroin on prescription to those who needed it was "a very successful system", he said, adding: "We ought to be providing heroin through the legal market more than we are now, when what concerns me most is the level of murders that we are getting in this country associated with the drugs business and it is directly caused by the prohibitary policy that we have in relation to drugs."