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ANOTHER VIEW: I've been there, Clare

What a pathetic bunch of people politicians can be. When it comes to the drugs issue we're mostly out of touch, trailing hopelessly behind our law enforcers and too frightened to stick our heads above the parapet.

And with good reason. Clare Short airs her concerns, echoing the Liberal Democrats in calling for a serious review of our drugs laws, and instantly she is attacked by party colleagues and opponents alike.

I've been there, Clare. Never a day passed during my by-election campaign without my being accused of being "soft on drugs". But it wasn't the Tories who did most of the attacking, it was the Labour Party and its spin-doctor- in-chief, Peter Mandelson.

Fortunately my Liberal Democrat colleagues supported me fully, as well they might, for the views I hold are not only in line with party policy but very similar to the Association of Chief Police Officers. Have you noticed, by the way, that the Home Secretary only listens to the chief constables when he likes what they have to say?

I don't want an approach that is soft on drugs, but one which is hard on the criminal drug barons. Yet nothing will be achieved so long as we ignore reality.

Some 6 million British citizens are said to have taken cannabis. Many have experimented with something a lot stronger. The vast majority will have suffered fewer ill-effects than those produced by nicotine addiction or excess alcohol. Our law makes criminals of millions of people who have done no harm to others. We even penalise cancer patients and those with multiple sclerosis by denying them access to the therapeutic properties of cannabis.

The approach taken by most government and opposition leaders is to call for more of the same. To avoid attack by opponents seeking to score political points, they claim that the existing approach to enforcement will one day succeed in curbing drugs use.

Hard drugs can do immense harm, but the existing laws offer no solution to the problem. The prohibition approach isn't working in any other country and there is no sign that it will work here.

I am convinced that the criminality associated with the drugs trade is now a greater threat to society than the effects of the drugs themselves. But while politicians keep their heads buried in the sand the drugs barons will keep laughing all the way to the bank.

It is time to study the full range of alternative strategies, and Liberal Democrats believe that a royal commission could provide the best forum for serious discussion.

There will be no easy answers. But MPs should at least have the courage to start asking the questions.

The writer is Liberal Democrat MP for Littleborough and Saddleworth.