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UK Politics

David Cameron rules out major review into decriminalising drugs

Prime Minister rejects conclusion of inquiry that found current policy is not working

David Cameron today ruled out a fundamental review of the Government's approach to drugs, insisting its current strategy was “working”.

The Prime Minister dismissed calls from a cross-party group of MPs to hold a wide-ranging Royal Commission to consider alternative methods, including legalisation.

After a year-long inquiry, the Commons Home Affairs Committee said the Government's current policy was not working.

But, speaking during a visit to Cambridge today, Mr Cameron said: “I don't support decriminalisation. We have a policy which actually is working in Britain.

“Drugs use is coming down, the emphasis on treatment is absolutely right, and we need to continue with that to make sure we can really make a difference. Also, we need to do more to keep drugs out of our prisons.

“These are the Government's priorities and I think we should continue with that rather than have some very, very long-term Royal Commission.”

In a report, the influential Home Affairs Committee said ministers could learn from the experience of Portugal where drugs have been “depenalised” - with possession of small amounts not subject to criminal penalties, even though they remain illegal.

It also urged the Government to fund detailed studies of changes in Washington and Colorado in the United States - where cannabis is being legalised - and Uruguay where a state monopoly of cannabis production and sale is being proposed.

Ten years after its predecessor committee last looked at the issue, it said change was now urgent and that a Royal Commission should be set up immediately so it could report back by 2015, when the next general election is due to take place.

In other recommendations, the committee called for the prosecution of senior officials in banks responsible for laundering the profits of drugs gangs and for better drugs education in schools.

The committee said it was clear from the experience of countries around the world that the current approach was not working, and that alternative strategies - such as those developed in Portugal - should now be considered.

“We were impressed by what we saw of the Portuguese depenalised system. It had clearly reduced public concern about drug use in that country, and was supported by all political parties and the police,” it said.

“Although it is not certain that the Portuguese experience could be replicated in the UK, given societal differences, we believe this is a model that merits significantly closer consideration.”

Ministers should, it said, open discussions with the United Nations Commission on Drugs on new ways to tackle what it called the “global drugs dilemma” - including “the possibility of legalisation and regulation”.

At the same time, the committee was highly critical of the Government's failure to hit the profits of the drugs gangs, saying its approach to money laundering was “far too weak”.

It said ministers should legislate to extend the “personal, criminal liability” of the most senior office holders in the banks involved, and so that retailers who sell untested “legal highs” can be held liable for any harm the products cause .

The committee expressed concern that the creation of the recently elected police and crime commissioners could lead to significant local variations in the approach to drugs, resulting in a “geographical displacement” of the drugs trade within the UK.

It said more needed to be done to tackle the widespread availability of drugs in prisons - including mandatory searches of prisoners when they enter and leave jail - while successful treatments such as residential rehabilitation and the methadone substitute, buprenorphine, should be made more widely available.

Committee chairman Keith Vaz said that action was now imperative and ministers could not afford to “kick this issue into the long grass”.

“There is no doubt that we have failed to deal with the dealers and we have not focused on the users. Only with this twin approach will we break the devastating cycle of drug addiction in society,” he said.

“Drugs cost thousands of lives and the taxpayer billions of pounds each year. This is a critical, now or never moment for serious reform. If we do not act now, future generations will be crippled by the social and financial burden of addiction.”

However, Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, expressed concern about the possible impact on cannabis use.

“If the report is to be responsible, it must take account of the specific damage that cannabis can do to the developing brain, not only as recent studies have shown inducing irreversible cognitive deterioration but in around 10% of cases triggering severe psychotic illness,” she said.

Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Jeremy Browne insisted today the Government was making significant progress on drugs but said it was “open to new ways of thinking”.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “We are open-minded, we think it's a decent, thoughtful, balanced report. We will consider it carefully.”

Pressed on whether the Government would hold a Royal Commission as suggested, Mr Browne said: “The Home Secretary has said she doesn't think the Royal Commission is the answer at this time, but we are open to new ideas and evidence-based research to carry on reducing the harm caused by drugs in this country.”