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Ian Oliver: Legalising drugs would only make matters worse

Recently, A great deal of media attention has been focused on a call for the legalisation of drugs by a former civil servant who was responsible for the Cabinet's anti-drug unit. In The Independent last week, Julian Critchley said that legalisation would be "less harmful than the current strategy" and that an "overwhelming majority of professionals in the field" agree with that view.

Now he has become a teacher, his dangerously naive views appear to be more harmful than an inadequate UK drug policy, and he must associate with a limited group of professionals if his assertion is not gross exaggeration. The majority of people in the UK do not wish to see drugs legalised, and only 6 per cent of the global population between the ages of 15-64 use drugs; this is hardly justification for legalisation.

The UK has the highest rate of drug misuse in Europe and the abuse of illicit drugs is a major social problem, not least because of the public health implications. Aids/HIV and other blood-borne diseases are global pandemics and there is a huge ignorance in the UK about these, and sexually transmitted infections, which are also linked with drug abuse. The legalisation of drugs would lead inevitably to a greater number of addictions, an increased burden on the health and social services, and there would be no compensating diminution in criminal justice costs as, contrary to the view held by legalisers, crime would not be eliminated or reduced.

Perhaps it is not widely known that there is a global movement to overturn the United Nations Conventions and secure the legalisation of all drugs driven by people who see huge profits to be had from marketing another addictive substance. Research has demonstrated that the dependency rate for "legal" drugs among those who chose to use them would be around 50 per cent, the same as tobacco, which is why major companies are turning to developing countries in order to encourage smoking.

Recently, a TV programme discussed the issue, and several members of the public phoned in their views, most of which were responsibly opposed to the misuse of drugs. However, it was alarming to hear several people say that they thought that legalising drugs would be the most effective way of dealing with the problem. All of these good people believed that such action would defeat the traffickers, take the profit out of the drug trade and solve the drug problem completely. There was no consideration given to the fact that there is a thriving black market in the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco, and no awareness of the huge administrative burden that would be created by setting up a government department to tax and administer drugs if legalisation had occurred. There was no awareness of the devious ways in which drug traffickers would circumvent the legislation and no thought given to the huge increase in addiction/dependency that would automatically follow such an ill-advised move, with the tremendous damage that would be visited on the health services in perpetuity. The tax demands would rocket as a consequence.

It is always asserted that legalisation would take the profit out of drug trafficking and would result in a huge drop in crime but, short of the Government distributing free drugs, those who commit crime now to obtain their drugs would continue to do so if they became legal.

It is seldom made clear which drugs the legalisers are referring to and to whom they should become available. Is it the position that they wish to legalise "crack" and will all people, regardless of age and mental condition, be able to buy them?The cumulative effects of prohibition and interdiction, combined with education and treatment during 100 years of International Drug Control, have had a significant impact in stemming the drug problem. Legalisation would be likely to convince people that any legal activity cannot be very harmful, increase the availability of drugs, increase the harmful consequences associated with drugs and remove the social sanctions normally supported by the legal system.

All drugs, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines, can be dangerous if they are taken without attention to appropriate medical advice. Instead of calling for legalisation, it would be far more sensible, as Nick Harding suggested in his article about cannabis use in yesterday's Independent, to seek improved policies. The compassionate and sensible approach should be that we do everything possible to reduce addiction and drug abuse, not encourage it.

Dr Ian Oliver is a former Chief Constable of Grampian Police and the author of 'Drug Affliction'