'Zero tolerance' drugs plan criticised

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Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe brought controversy to the Conservative party conference today by announcing a "zero tolerance" drugs policy.

Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe brought controversy to the Conservative party conference today by announcing a "zero tolerance" drugs policy.

She told delegates in Bournemouth anyone caught in possession of a banned substance - whatever the amount - would be fined a minimum £100.

Ms Widdecombe said there would be "no quarter" for those who traded in the misery, despair and death brought by drugs and "no hiding place" for those caught in possession.

Her speech brought loud applause from the Tory faithful - but criticism elsewhere.

Police, political opponents and even senior Tory peer Lord Cranborne said they did not support her stand.

Lord Cranbourne even stated he wanted cannabis to be legalised

Asked if cannabis should be decriminalised, he said: "Yes, I do, and I think so for one very simple reason, which is that I think at the moment it is making the law into an ass.

"I don't like the idea of people using drugs which are at present illegal any more than Ann Widdecombe does but what I do think you do is you play into the hands of criminals if you make the law into an ass when nobody wants to obey the law and, indeed, regards breaking the law as a bit of a challenge."

And Peter Williams, national secretary of the Police Superintendents' Association, said officers did not want to punish people for simple possession.

He said: "We would not support this proposal.

"The reason for this is that the policy is not to punish people for possession of drugs but to try and divert them from drugs.

"We support the present national strategy involving drug action teams which have a very positive effect."

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, accused Miss Widdecombe of a "simplistic" approach to drugs - and attacked her party's record on crime.

He said: "The continuing Tory hypocrisy on crime is breathtaking.

"They have conveniently forgotten that under Tory governments crime doubled, violent crime rose every year and promises on police numbers were broken."

Fixed fines for possession would make "no great difference" to the problems of drug abuse, he said.

"It may well be difficult for the police to enforce," he said.

"Police effort would be better focused on stopping the drug dealers and organised criminals who run the despicable drug industry - not on the small time users."

He described plans to detain all asylum seekers as "the policy of an extreme party not a one-nation party".

And he added: "Compulsory detention is unprincipled, costly, likely to contravene human rights legislation and would make Britain uniquely severe in Europe.

"The key to a credible asylum system is fast decision-making. Speedy identification of unfounded asylum claims would prove to be deterrent enough."

The most recent figures revealed that 97,249 people were cautioned, fined or otherwise found guilty of possessing cannabis.

That is nearly four times higher than the level 10 years previously.

Mike Goodman, director of national drug charity Release, said he was bitterly disappointed by the proposal.

Mr Goodman said: "This proposal is wrong in principle and counter-productive in practice.

"It is a step backwards that will further criminalise young, otherwise law abiding citizens. The demonisation of cannabis users is simply not justified.

"This proposal is more likely to bring our drugs laws into disrepute and undermine the progress that has been made in recent years in dealing with the genuinely dangerous drugs and improved treatment facilities for those who do have problems."

Paul Cavadino, of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said the proposals would do nothing for public safety.

He said: "This heavy handed approach will create headaches for the police and bring the law into disrepute in the eyes of many otherwise law abiding young people.

"A criminal record makes it harder to get a job. In view of the links between unemployment and crime, this policy is likely to increase criminal activity rather than reduce it."

Officials estimate this would result in about 50,000 fixed penalty notices issued a year.

The latest figures published in the British Crime Survey show that in 1998, a quarter of the adult population had tried cannabis at some point.

This figure rises to 42 per cent when it comes to young people between 16 and 29 years old.

Convictions for possession of cannabis have increased dramatically in the past 10 years.

The Police Federation was more cautious.

Chairman Fred Broughton said: "We welcome this unambiguous signal that drug taking is illegal but we will need to examine the practical implications for policing following this surprise announcement.

"We have 4,000 fewer police officers than in 1993 and policing priorities need clarification. We look forward to engaging in discussion."

Human Rights group Liberty described the proposals as a waste of police resources which would also drive people away from help.

John Wadham, the organisation's director, said: "Now is not the time to step up the penalties against drug users.

"Possession of small amounts of drugs should be decriminalised. Dragging thousands of adults through the criminal justice system is a waste of police resources.

"Police need resources to fight violent crime and crime that has victims."

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