Leading Article: Steps in the right direction on drugs

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The Independent Online
AT LAST a measure of good sense has emerged from the Government on drug abuse. The consultation document published today amounts to an admission that the long-sustained emphasis on law-enforcement and punishment has not been effective.

It will not be dropped, but will be more strongly balanced by just those measures to which the Government's critics believed greater attention should be given: education programmes focusing on young people and subject to inspection, and what could be called the public health route. That will include improved facilities for those anxious to break their addiction, and better access to counselling, treatment and after-care services.

This is a substantial and welcome switch of emphasis. Legalisation of any currently banned drug, including cannabis, is ruled out. But for the first time the issue is addressed, in an appendix in which the Government concedes that 'the debate can be conducted in good faith by responsible people who can respect each others' views'.

None the less, the case for some form of decriminalisation or controlled sale of certain drugs is neither adequately put nor answered. That is particularly true of the central argument: that decriminalisation would undermine the vast illicit economy in which drug pushers adopt mafia-style methods to protect their markets from competition and the police, and users become pushers, burglars or thieves to feed their habit.

While grudgingly conceding that 'acquisitive' crime might be reduced by freely available, low- priced drugs, the Government believes that benefit is heavily outweighed by the human costs of increased use and dependence. It is true there would be some increase in use. But in medical terms the toll would be much less than that already exacted by the legal consumption of cigarettes and alcohol.

So far, the Liberal Democrats alone have had the courage to debate decriminalisation - only to be pilloried for calling at their party conference last month for a Royal Commission to examine the entire issue.

Labour has played safe: Tony Blair has been strong on analysing the inconsistencies of government policy, but has said that using cannabis should remain a crime.

Given the narrow confines within which the two main parties have chosen to operate on this subject, the Government has now taken a big step forward. If its new policies are successful, it should be emboldened to take the first steps towards some form of decriminalisation.