We should aim to reduce the damage from drugs, not punish the users

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The Independent Online

It has become obvious that our drugs laws are not working. The Independent has long argued for a free-minded debate on the issue of drugs and, in particular, the need to differentiate between addictive narcotics and those milder substances where much of the problem is caused by their illegality. There was always something odd about cannabis being treated in the same way as opiates.

It has become obvious that our drugs laws are not working. The Independent has long argued for a free-minded debate on the issue of drugs and, in particular, the need to differentiate between addictive narcotics and those milder substances where much of the problem is caused by their illegality. There was always something odd about cannabis being treated in the same way as opiates.

Sooner or later the absurdity of this was going to become obvious; so it has proved. When the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, announced last month he wanted to relax the laws on cannabis he was doing no more than coming to terms with the new realities. Remember Ann Widdecombe's speech to the Conservative Party conference in October 2000 with its strident demands for a statutory penalty for possession of even the tiniest amounts of marijuana; this may seem an eternity ago, but it can, in retrospect, be seen as the last gasp of the blinkered old order.

The younger generation of Conservative frontbenchers apart, the most striking aspect of the increasingly sensible drugs debate has been the outspoken interventions by serving police officers. Their experience fighting crime in places like Brixton, south London, has propelled the police and the Home Secretary into modifying the law on cannabis.

Now Commander Brian Paddick of the Metropolitan Police, who pioneered the scheme in which police cautioned rather than arrested people for cannabis possession, says that arresting people with, say, a few ecstasy tablets is a "waste of resources". And Chief Superintendent Kevin Morris, the president of the Superintendents' Association has said it would support safe injecting rooms, or so-called "shooting galleries", where heroin users could inject in controlled conditions.

This revolution in thinking has been forced on frontline police officers by the failure of our existing approach, especially the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act and the Government's faltering "war on drugs".

Policemen, however, should not dictate public policy. Having said that, Mr Blunkett was wise to listen to the arguments on cannabis and we hope he will prove equally open minded in reviewing the law as it relates to other drugs. In the case of ecstasy, now classified as a class A drug along with heroin and LSD, all the statistics suggest that it is much less damaging than heroin. There is little evidence of craving, withdrawal or other addictive behaviour associated with this particular drug; it is, according to authoritative studies, several thousand times less dangerous than heroin; and it is, frankly, significantly less dangerous than alcohol, the biggest killer in the country. Ecstasy should rapidly be transferred to class B.

Relaxing the laws on cannabis and ecstasy are pragmatic moves that must be part of an approach that has harm reduction, not punishment, at its centre. It is right to caution so-called "weekend" drug users, rather than prosecute them – so long as this is not just applied to middle-aged and middle-class users. In the case of heroin, that must mean moving addicts away from the criminal market for often adulterated merchandise and towards the much wider prescription of the drug in its pharmaceutically pure form. The same applies to the supply of needles and other drug paraphernalia and a safe environment for consumption. Pilot schemes in America and elsewhere have found such schemes lead to a big reduction in crime, especially burglary and shoplifting, and are highly cost effective.

The resources released by these sorts of initiatives can then be trained on what should be the priority – clamping down on the large drug dealers and importers, especially those who traffic heroin and cocaine. What matters is what works, as someone famously said.

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