Leading Article: Short-circuiting the drugs debate

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The Independent Online
Clare Short's 24-hour career as a Labour front-bench spokesperson on home affairs, following her remarks to David Frost about legalising cannabis, is the sorriest illustration yet of the way that mainstream politicians are closing down debate as they scramble for the high, centre ground of public opinion.

It is reasonably clear that the British public is not yet ready to legalise or decriminalise any of the drugs currently restricted by the Misuse of Drugs Act. A poll commissioned for the Independent and Channel 4 last spring suggested that six in 10 of us think that the use of cannabis should remain illegal.

And yet it is grimly self-evident that the policies so far espoused by our politicians to address the issue of drug abuse are not working. The number of registered addicts has multiplied fivefold in a decade. Prosecutions for cannabis possession have more than doubled in that period and maximum fines have gone up by a factor of five; Graeme Steel, son of Sir David, was jailed for nine months on Friday for a first offence involving marijuana. It is estimated that over a third of property crime is drug-related.

Meanwhile, the Government has admitted that its shock tactic advertising assault on young people has failed; now the focus is to be placed on education work in primary schools. Most tellingly of all, the number of people, especially young people, who use drugs recreationally continues to soar. The latest surveys suggest over a quarter of 15- to 16-year-olds are active participants in the drugs scene. The Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency thinks that the deviant teenager of the new millennium will be the one who has not experienced drugs in a recreational setting.

This litany of statistics, and the human despair and dislocation with which it connects, does not in itself make the case for legalising cannabis, but it surely demonstrates the bankruptcy of existing policy.

You might think this would be the cue for a serious and open-minded debate. The Independent has long argued for the legalisation and licensing of those drugs that have little or no ill-effect on health if used in moderation, like alcohol, like cannabis and (in all probability) like the dance drug Ecstasy. The case is that only by placing these substances within the law can their quality and strength be regulated and their supply detached from the forces of organised crime that luxuriate on their back. Prohibition of these drugs is doomed, over time, to prove as futile as the Volstead Act, which outlawed the sale of alcohol in the United States between 1919 and 1933.

It is simply not tenable that we should expect a widening circle of our citizens to live their social lives outside the law. If we cannot shock them or punish them out of this behaviour, we are frankly not much more likely to talk them out of it between reading lessons and nature walks.

What is overwhelmingly obvious is that these issues need thorough examination by politicians who have flexible minds and a good deal of courage. Ms Short has a good deal of the latter and a growing disposition towards the former. Her silencing is a blow to healthy politics.