'The most dangerous message of all is the one that says all drugs are equally dangerous'

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The Independent Online

Britain's drugs laws are ineffective and outdated, says one of the most comprehensive reports published in this country.

Britain's drugs laws are ineffective and outdated, says one of the most comprehensive reports published in this country.

A two-year investigation into 30-year-old drug legislation calls for reforms and for the Government to rethink its approach to drug users, traffickers and dealers.

The laws on cannabis came in for particular criticism, with the influential inquiry team insisting alcohol and tobacco are far more harmful to individuals and society.

Many of the inquiry's findings will have infuriated Tony Blair and Jack Straw, who have spent the past few years introducing increasingly tough penalties for drug offences.

But the 148-page report, by a committee established by the charitable research organisation the Police Foundation, has reopened the drugs debate and again raised the thorny question of decriminalisation.

The main thrust of the report is that punishment does not work, and more needs to done to help treat and educate drug users, while tougher action is required against traffickers and dealers.

Sections of yesterday's inquiry had been widely leaked, but the proposals for a drastic reduction of all drug possession came as a big surprise.

The report says offences of possession account for 90 per cent of enforcement. "Imprisonment is neither a proportionate response to the vast majority of possession offences nor an effective response," it continues.

The committee urges the Government to consider a sea-change in its attitude to drugs and to reform laws to more accurately reflect society'sliberalised attitude to cannabis, LSD, and ecstasy.

The proposals for changes to the laws on cannabis would bring about "greatest change", say the report's authors. They agree there are significant physical and psychological risks from cannabis use.

But the report adds: "It is less harmful to the individual and society than any of the other major illicit drugs, or than alcohol and tobacco."

The inquiry drew up a league table of "harmfulness" classing alcohol as being as dangerous as cocaine, putting heroin and tobacco in the same group as ecstasy and LSD.

The report says: "Our conclusion is that the present law on cannabis produces more harm than it prevents ... It inevitably bears more heavily on young people in the streets of inner cities, who are also more likely to be from minority ethnic communities.

"It criminalises large numbers of otherwise law-abiding, mainly young, people to the detriment of their futures. It has become a proxy for the control of public order; and it inhibits accurate education about the relative risks of differentdrugs including the risk of cannabis itself."

Under the proposals, cannabis would be reclassified from a Class B to a Class C drug, and people repeatedly caught in possession of it should face a maximum £500 fine. For most, a small fine or information caution would be enough, says the report.

The power of arrest would be abandoned for people caught with cannabis, once it had been reclassified.

But police would still be able to stop and search suspects, and if they have a small quantity of cannabis they would be released.

These changes would result in a huge drop in police cases - 78,000 of the 113,000 drug offences in 1997 were for cannabis possession.

Committee members visited the Netherlands as part of their research, and praised its legal system, where, although cannabis remains illegal, it has established the small-scale supply of cannabis through licensed "coffee shops".

Dutch police also take a more pragmatic approach, in effect turning a blind eye to some cannabis supply. Despite the wider availability of the drug, fewer young people use cannabis than in the UK and a larger proportion are in touch with treatment services, says the report.

The committee's inquiries found the UK "has a more severe regime of control over possession offences than most other European countries".

A reclassification of ecstasy, LSD and cannabis was vital if the public was to take the present laws seriously, and reclassification will "enable the law to reflect more accurately the risks attached to different drugs", says the report.

"We have concluded that the most dangerous message of all is the message that all drugs are equally dangerous.

"When young people know from their own experience that part of the message is either exaggerated or untrue, there is a serious risk they will discount all the rest.

"All the evidence suggests to us that the law plays a minor part in deterring demand. It is of prime importance, therefore, that the law should accurately reflect relative harm in terms of current knowledge and experience.

"Only then can it support a public health agenda of education and prevention."

But as the study points out, while the UK's seven-year maximum jail sentence for drug possession is one of the toughest in Europe, it is rarely used. Sentences average four months and only 4,852 people were jailed in 1997 for possession.

The number of drug offenders cautioned in the UK has also risen rapidly, from 394 or 3 per cent of the total in 1974 to half or 56,756 people in 1997. More than 20 per cent were fined and 9 per cent, or 10,422, were jailed.

The percentage of drug offenders in the prison population has increased substantially, from 3,417 or 9 per cent of the jail population in 1990, to 7,174 or 15 per cent in 1997.

The committee called for "substantial re-allocation" of resources from enforcement, which takes up 62 per cent of the total drugs budget, to treatment services, which receive 13 per cent.

To test the argument that the Government is out of step with public opinion the inquiry team commissioned a Mori poll of 1,645 adults. The poll found that while 90 per cent of those questioned thought that heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines were very or fairly harmful, only one-third considered cannabis to be harmful.

People wanted to see strong and effective drug laws with two-thirds saying they wanted tougher penalties. But when questioned about cannabis use about half said that it should be legal.

When asked about policing, fewer than half of 1 per cent mentioned cannabis users as a priority, compared with two- thirds who wanted a focus on heroin dealers.

"The evidence we have collected on public attitudes shows that the public sees the health-related dangers of drugs as much more of a deterrent to use than their illegality, the fear of being caught and punished, availability, or price," says the report. It concludes that implementation of their recommendations would "bring the law into line with public opinion and its most loyal ally, common sense".

Yet as soon as the report was officially published, the Government was pouring cold water on the more radical proposals on lowering penalties for possession.

Downing Street and Home Office spokesmen immediately rejected any of the proposals relating to ecstasy, LSD or cannabis and warned that they might encourage more people to experiment with drugs.