Legalising drugs 'may be the only answer'

Report suggests tough approach causes more harm than good
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The Independent Online

Illegal drug use is spiralling out of control in Britain and the Government's repressive approach to the problem may be causing more harm than good, a group of leading doctors said yesterday.

The inexorable rise in drug addiction, up fourfold in a decade, is unlikely to be halted by government initiatives and, as drug use spreads, support for punitive policies is likely to wane. The pressure for "some form of legalisation" may then prove irresistible, a report by two Royal medical colleges says.

Published a day after the Police Foundation called for a softer line on hard drugs and the decriminalisation of cannabis possession the new report seeks to open a wider debate on the social and economic costs of drug use. It says the huge sums generated by the drugs trade, and the potential benefits these could bring, may ultimately be seen to outweigh the harm caused and swing public opinion behind demands for legalisation.

Despite expenditure of £1.4bn a year on efforts to control the drugs problem, heroin has fallen in price by 50 per cent in real terms over the last 20 years and is purer. Seizures of heroin have risen from around 300 a year in the mid-1970s to more than 12,000 in 1997, and convictions for cannabis offences have risen from fewer than 20,000 to almost 100,000 a year. The number of registered addicts rose from 10,716 in 1987 to 43,372 in 1996.

Dr Robert Kendall, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and chairman of the joint working party with the Royal College of Physicians that produced the report Drugs: Dilemmas and Choices, said: "These are pretty terrifying figures and they have all the hallmarks of a problem spiralling out of control."

Calling for more funds to be diverted to treatment, with an immediate 50 per cent increase in places for heroin addicts, the report says it is more likely that drug taking will increase than reduce over the next two or three decades, despite government targets to halve the proportion of young people using heroin and cocaine by 2008. If that happened, "electorates and governments would be bound to conclude sooner or later that polices that were failing, decade after decade, must be changed." The most obvious alternative was "some form of legalisation" although this could take many forms.

Dr Kendall said legalising a drug made it more likely that it would be used. That was why there were 30,000 deaths a year from alcohol, 120,000 from tobacco and at most 2,000 from all illegal drugs combined.

"Making a drug illegal is a relatively effective way of minimising the number who use it," he said, "but the price we pay is the creation of a massive criminal industry that imposes all sorts of costs of theft, corruption and money laundering. Society can choose which kind of problem it prefers."

The report says the international trade in drugs generates between $1,500bn (£900bn) and $5,000bn a year. "It may be the implications of this for the world economy, rather than crime rates, ... that finally persuades governments that radical change is needed," it says.