Leading Article: A drug law that promotes crime

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The Independent Online
THIS IS not an ideal time to persuade politicians to talk about legalising drugs. Political parties are not in a mood to take risks. When they want to attract attention, they prefer to do so by offering thrusting new thoughts on the economy and other mainstream subjects. But crime is now as mainstream as you can get, and a great deal of crime is related to drugs. So any politician who talks about crime without confronting the debate on drugs is evading half the issue.

Yesterday's police raid on 'Cannabis Cafe' in Brighton is only one example of police time being wasted on drug-related offences. How many houses were burgled and cars stolen in Brighton while the police were busy with the offending cafe? Yet the police were not to blame. The provocative opening of the cafe had been so well publicised that to have ignored it would have signalled that drug offences would now be ignored. The police are not entitled to convey such signals. They are supposed to uphold the law as it is, not as it should be.

What is wrong is the law itself. The criminalisation of cannabis derives from a number of prejudices and misconceptions. Although the drug is not entirely harmless, it is less harmful than tobacco. It is not addictive, nor dangerous in moderate quantities, and it does not provoke violent or anti-social behaviour. It mostly induces nothing worse than a state of rather happy, foolish withdrawal. It was partly this effect that worried orthodox society in the Sixties, because it became associated with the demotivation of an entire generation that was exaggeratedly seen as dropping out of the acquisitive, consumerist society. Cannabis was felt to be subversive.

Since then, successive generations have responded normally to economic stimuli and remained as acquisitive as anyone could wish. But they have continued to take cannabis. Almost all 25-year- olds in London have tried it, according to a recent survey by Time Out magazine. Cannabis should therefore have lost its association with drop-outs and have come to be seen as a recreational drug, offering much the same sort of respite from reality as alcohol but with less dangerous side-effects. It is also being found to have a widening variety of valuable medicinal qualities, particularly for the alleviation of multiple sclerosis.

In a period of rising crime, when practically every householder and car-owner feels vulnerable, and when peaceful citizens form vigilante groups because they are insufficiently protected by the proper authorities, it is absurd that the police and the courts should have had to spend valuable time dealing with 47,616 drug offences in 1991, and probably more last year, of which about 85 per cent concerned cannabis. Legalising the drug would save substantial amounts of time and money as well as bringing in tax revenue from legal sales. It would reduce the number of crimes committed to raise money for cannabis by lowering the price, unless heavily taxed, and undermine the power of the criminal underworld.

That world, however, is also deeply involved in hard drugs, which pose more complex problems since they can be dangerous and addictive. Some experts, including Commander John Grieve of the Metropolitan Police, believe the answer is to license and control the supply of all drugs. 'We need to undermine the economic or acquisitive base of drugs crime and the economic base of organised crime,' he said at a conference in May.

If the Government wants to be seen to be serious about crime, it must look at the causes, one of which is drugs. A legal market in drugs under tight, selective controls, would not end drug-related crime, and people would still rob in order to raise money for drugs, but much more of the problem would be above ground and therefore more manageable. As suggested by Release, the drugs advisory service, this would be a suitable subject for examination by a Royal Commission.