Expert commission calls for total overhaul of UK drugs legislation

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Britain's antiquated laws have failed to control the rapid spread of drug use over the past 30 years and should be replaced with a system that treats users as victims rather than offenders, the Government has been told.

A two-year survey of drug use reached the damning conclusion that the current legislation is "not fit for purpose", failing to recognise that alcohol and tobacco can cause more harm than "demonised" substances such as cannabis and ecstasy. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce Commission on Illegal Drugs said current laws were "driven by a moral panic" and one of its members warned that increasing numbers of primary school children were experimenting with drugs.

The commission, which included academics, community workers and politicians, demanded the abolition of the Misuse of Drugs Act, to be replaced with a broader Misuse of Substances Act.

It believes the system of dividing drugs into A, B and C categories should be swept away in favour of an "index of harms", recognising the damage that different substances do to users and society as a whole.

Under one possible ratings system, heroin, cocaine and barbiturates would be rated the most dangerous drugs. Alcohol (5th) and tobacco (9th) would be treated as more hazardous than cannabis (11th), LSD (14th) and ecstasy (18th).

In a proposal that would effectively decriminalise cannabis, it said jail sentences should be reserved for the most serious drugs offences. It said current classifications for ecstasy and LSD - both class-A substances - lacked credibility.

The commission called for the Home Office to be stripped of government responsibility for drugs policy in favour of local councils and drugs teams. The move would prevent drug use being treated primarily as a criminal justice issue and switch the focus to tackling addiction.

It called for children to be warned about the dangers of drug use while they were still in primary school.

One commission member, Steve Rossell, chief executive of Cranstoun Drug Services, which provides treatment to addicts, said: "I'm seeing the average age of first use of drugs dramatically dropping year on year. In order to address that ... children need to have the facts put before them at a far earlier age."

Another member, Fatima Roberts, a community worker in London, said children as young as five were well acquainted with a drugs culture. In a recent project in Tower Hamlets, they had drawn pictures of drug dealers with spliffs, chains and fast cars.

The report called for wider prescription of heroin to addicts and for the introduction of "shooting galleries" where users can inject. It demanded improvement in rehabilitation services in prisons in an effort to break the link between addiction and acquisitive crime.

Its chairman, Anthony King, professor of government at Essex University, said the great majority of drug users did not harm themselves or others. He said: "Current policy is broke and needs to be fixed."

Its report received a chilly response from the Home Office, which said it did not accept all the recommendations. A spokesman said: "We are not complacent and we will continue to look to improve our work in this area wherever we can." But Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "This is a wake-up call. Our current policies are clearly not working. We need a non-partisan debate about the way forward."

Iain Duncan Smith, the chairman of the Conservative Social Justice Policy Group, said: "The report grossly underplays the damage done to individuals and society by the taking of psychoactive drugs. [And] it adopts a defeatist attitude to the spiralling growth in drug misuse."

The commission's report said drugs were not confined to any one section of the population, with substance abuse in all social classes in all parts of the country.

It said: "Illegal drugs and drug users are frequently depicted as evil and a threat to society. In our view demonisation does more harm than good... The idea of a drugs-free world, or even a drugs-free Britain, is... a chimera. The main aim of public policy should be to reduce the amount of harm that drugs cause."

Charles Clarke promised a review of the drug classification system, which dates from the early 1970s, when he was Home Secretary. It was abandoned when he was succeeded by John Reid, who shows no sign of wanting to revisit the issue.

Martin Barnes, chief executive of the charity DrugScope, said the report marked "a watershed in political and public debate on the future of drugs policy".

He said: "The emphasis on drugs as a criminal justice issue needs to shift to a more explicit focus on health and reducing the wider harms caused by drugs to individuals, families and communities."

Controlled substances

Cannabis

Easily cultivated in temperate climates. More than three million regular users in UK - higher than elsewhere in Europe. Costs £30 to £80 per ounce of resin, £35 to £110 for herbal cannabis, rising to £160 for highest quality. Class C substance.

Report Says: "Used more like tobacco and coffee than other drugs and by a wider variety of users. Medicinal uses."

Dangers: Little evidence of physical dependence, but can be psychologically addictive.

Reducing Use: Warning children about dangers.

Heroin

Derived from the opium poppy, the vast majority of which are grown in Afghanistan. UK use higher than in most Western countries, but less than 1 per cent of adults (approx 40,000) are users. Wide variations in street price, averaging £40 per gram. Class A.

Report Says: "Accounts for a large proportion of problematic drug use."

Dangers: The most physically addictive drug, with debilitating side-effects. Linked to crime.

Reducing Use: Introducing "shooting galleries" and prescribing heroin.

Cocaine

Made from the coca shrub. Growing popularity, with 800,000 regular users and the UK topping European league table for use. Readily available for £30 to £55 per gram, with 10 to 20 lines per gram. Class A.

Report Says: "Increasing numbers of teenagers experimenting with it because of media campaigns against ecstasy."

Dangers: Psychological dependence. Regular users become run down. Risk of heart attack. Damage to nose and facial muscles.

Reducing Use: Acupuncture and neuroelectrical therapy.

Crack

Smokable form of cocaine turned into rocks. Epidemic use forecast in the late 1980s has not materialised. Concentrated in major cities. Class A.

Report Says: "Image as the 'cheap and squalid poor relation of powder cocaine'." More users than heroin addicts among children in care, rough sleepers and prostitutes.

Dangers: Highly and instantly addictive. Linked to crime with growing numbers of addicts in jail, and associated with homelessness.

Reducing Use: Getting users off the streets.

Ecstasy

Synthetic drug taken as a tablet which gives rush of energy lasting up to six hours. Popular among younger adults - 9 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds reported using it. Costs £1 to £5 per pill. Class A.

Report Says: "Clubbers' drug of choice for 20 years. Class-A status has undermined its credibility among younger people.

Dangers: Over 200 ecstasy-related deaths in the UK. Increases blood pressure and heart rate.

Reducing Use: Leafletting campaigns targeted at clubbers. Educational campaigns in school.

The global view

Australia

In the mid 1980s, drug policy began to focus more on public health. Needle exchange programmes were introduced as early as 1986 to prevent the spread of HIV. Most territories have decrimin-alised possession of small amounts of cannabis.

United States

Successive White House administrations have taken a hard line. At least 500,000 Americans are in jail for drugs offences. But state legislators are increasingly beginning to shun the White House's hardline stance.

Russia

Decriminalised the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use in 2004. Has cracked down on drug paraphernalia, including needles.

Switzerland

Policy on soft drugs is similar to other European countries, but supplies hard drugs to addicts to reduce criminal activity and prevent diseases. Moves are afoot to decriminalise cannabis.

Taiwan

While drug use is regarded as a criminal activity, Taiwan tries to avoid jail. Offenders are forced to detoxify. First-time and minor offenders generally asked/forced to detoxify in hospital and then at a rehabilitation clinic, rather than charged.

Canada

Has generally resisted pressure from Washington to enact harsher drugs laws and has a strong tradition of needle exchange programmes. Heroin-prescription trials under way.

The Netherlands

One of the most liberal drugs stances in the world, although harder drugs are still illegal, with stiff penalties enforced.

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