Leading article: A bold attempt to clear the clouds of confusion

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The Chief Constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, will today ask his police authority to put its weight behind his call for the legalisation of drugs. Heroin, ecstasy, LSD, cannabis – the chief constable is advocating that all should be legal. He says current policies are failing, and he wants this to be the official submission of his force to the current Home Office consultation on drugs strategy.

This is brave talk. It is likely to be met with the usual knee-jerk dismissal that such recommendations habitually attract. But, as more and more thoughtful people adopt this view, is it not time to consider the chief constable's views on their merits? There has been a tendency to believe that the only people qualified to challenge current orthodoxy on drugs policy are those familiar with the gritty inner city. If the police chief in a predominantly rural region – itself not immune to drug problems – believes the law as it stands is having a perverse effect, surely this is a sign that the blight of addiction warrants a new approach.

Mr Brunstrom is the only chief constable to have been so outspoken in support of the legalisation of all drugs. But he is not such a lone voice in the upper echelons of the police service. Over the past 12 months, other senior officers have argued for the treatment of heroin addiction as a medical, rather than criminal, issue. Over the same time, the extent to which the illegality of drugs itself generates crime has been become increasingly, and shockingly, apparent.

All the prostitutes murdered in Ipswich last winter were drug addicts, selling their bodies to feed their habit. Of the young people killed in shootings in south London, Liverpool and Manchester in recent months, most lost their lives directly or indirectly because of drugs. Some were themselves involved in drug-related gangs; others fell foul of such a gang.

Illegal drugs are a direct, or contributory, factor in Britain's swelling prison population. Mugging, shop-lifting, burglary and the like are crimes committed by many not for money or property as such, but for funds to secure their next fix. And the Government's promise of treatment as an alternative, or supplement, to prison has done little to reduce the numbers. Often this is because, even where treatment is available, the offender has to wait for a place on a programme, and then the treatment is too peremptory to do a great deal of long-term good. That the street price of drugs is falling, and that drug use is now endemic even in many prisons, illustrates how current policies have failed.

Mr Brunstrom argues that the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act should be replaced by a new Substance Misuse Act. This would legalise and regulate all substances of abuse, including alcohol and tobacco, which would be classified according to a "hierarchy of harm". His reasoning is that regulation, rather than criminalisation, would result in a sharp drop in drug-related crime, allowing public funds to be transferred to treatment. In some cases, that treatment might include the supply of, say, heroin, under medically controlled conditions.

The chief constable's thinking is along similar lines to a report published by the Royal Society of Arts Commission on Drugs six months ago, which called for an end to the "moral panic" surrounding drugs, and the start of a rational analysis. Like the RSA, Mr Brunstrom cites the reluctance of politicians to challenge the hard line on drugs for fear of public opinion. He is right. The debate on drugs is wrapped up in a fog of confusion, myth and hysteria. It is time that prevailing assumptions were challenged and the bankruptcy of current policies seen for what it is. The Chief Constable of North Wales has made a welcome start.

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