Leading article: One more teenager makes no difference to the drugs debate

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The Independent Online
So a cabinet minister's son has supplied cannabis to an undercover reporter. Big deal. Some will say that this means the minister should resign because he says one thing about drugs and a member of his family does another. This is nonsense. Others will say this affair shows that the drugs law is an ass and ``proves'' the case for legalisation. That is nonsense, too.

Ministers, like corporate bosses, newspaper editors, and others in authority, should resign when they have made a major error, or if they have been dishonest. But reversing the old business about the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons is a barmy idea. Most parents of teenage children find it hard controlling them - think of Anne Atkins's daughter who ran away recently. But the children of politicians have a particularly hard time of it. Not only do their parents work punishingly long weeks, but they also have to put up with the constant needling and occasional sucking- up that goes with parental fame.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that there has been a long list of politicians' children who have got into trouble with drink or drugs. The wonder is that any of them grow up happy and successful at all. In the case being talked about now the boy has done nothing very heinous.

He was set up and fell - plop! - straight into the trap. There is no suggestion that he had been roaming around the capital luring innocent youngsters into a life of vice. As it happens, he is a decent, amusing young man who comes from a level-headed, very normal family. Like a vast number of people his age he has fooled around with soft drugs. Well, knock us down with the proverbial feather.

It changes nothing about our state of knowledge of the drugs question. He is surely allowed to try to cope with the consequences without it turning into a major national news story? For that reason, and because it is against the law to identify under-18s in court proceedings, we have taken a very low-key approach to the story. So have the broadcasters. Other papers, though, have used every hint, nudge and wink known to journalism to reveal the minister concerned, teetering, at least, on the edge of breaking the law in their anxiety to inform their readers.

Other than natural human curiosity the excuse must be that the son's behaviour is a matter of public interest, presumably because it would cause us to reassess his father's arguments. But the minister has not been hypocritical. He has not been ``caught out''. His son has done something he disapproves of - taking and dealing in drugs. He still disapproves of it.

Perhaps he feels more forcibly than before the truth that drugs are taken all over the place. But he knew that anyway. Indeed, overall, this story tells us nothing essential about the debate on the legalisation of drugs. For us, that is a subject close to home. Our sister paper has campaigned hard and honourably for the legalisation of cannabis. We remain, while intrigued, wholly unconvinced.

There is an intellectual case for the decriminalisation of all drugs, hard or soft, throughout the world, in order to destroy the profits which nourish international crime. That would be a huge step, but it might choke off one of the world's biggest, most unpleasant and fast-growing trades. Some people would be lured into hard drug use by its new legality; but one would have to set beside their plight the fall in crime and violence that might result. It is a fascinating ``balance of interests'' debate, which has attracted libertarians of left and right, and has fuelled many arguments among everyone from the police to students. But it is academic: it would require decisive leadership by many countries which currently take the opposite view, so it has no prospect whatever of happening in the foreseeable future.

That leaves the lesser question of whether or not cannabis itself should be legalised. (It is worth noting, in passing, that if it was, the minister's son, being aged under 17, would still have been liable to prosecution.) We are not morally shocked by cannabis use. Whisky has probably caused more misery by far... though more pleasure, too. But there is a lot of force in the Government's argument that legalisation would simply increase consumption without cutting crime, since the big dealers and gangs would move onto the next swathe of illegal drugs.

In the end it would not, we believe, cut crime or make the streets safer, though it would please many users. Nor would decriminalisation stop dare- hungry youths experimenting with dope: they experiment with cigarettes and spirits all the time.

It would, by contrast, tend to make drug use more socially acceptable, particularly as people search for alternatives to cigarettes and alcohol, knowing more and more about the drawbacks of both. Heroin and cocaine are already widely used by young wealthy professionals. Many people believe we are on the threshold of a new era of highly sophisticated ``smart'' drugs. Cannabis, the ultimate dopey drug, is going to become less of an issue, as campaigns start for the legalisation of ecstasy and other new drugs.

So the question is, should the law continue to provide a barrier, however rickety, against drug use, or should we give up, acknowledging that drugs are too popular for politicians and the police to continue to meddle with?

No one can seriously say that the drug laws work. But legalising one drug would have little effect on the law and order questions; and legalising all of them in one country is too big a risk. Cannabis use doesn't involve high penalties, but should, medical exceptions aside, be discouraged. That judgement, not an easy one, is what matters. The behaviour of yet another teenager who wants to get under dad's skin is good gossip but otherwise entirely irrelevant.