Leading Article: The fix that isn't working

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The Independent Online
THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS have been pilloried for supporting decriminalisation of the use and possession of cannabis. The vote at their conference on Monday has been seized upon by critics as evidence that the party is unfit to govern. Paddy Ashdown was embarrassed by the resolution.

Yet this proposal has merit and commands considerable support among the police, judiciary and the medical profession. There is no logical argument for discriminating between the use of cannabis (which was lawful until 1964) and alcohol. Nearly one in three adults under 30 has taken illegal drugs - usually cannabis. Some liberalisation - placing cannabis use on a par with, say, parking offences - could prevent thousands of citizens from living outside the criminal law.

More important, the Liberal Democrats' resolution might just help open up a debate about drug policy that has been obscured by politicians. Cannabis is the least controversial aspect of this debate; policy on opiates and cocaine is a far more difficult and pressing question.

The number of people addicted to hard drugs has risen fivefold in 10 years; seizures of hard drugs have trebled. The criminalisation of drug use has created a vast illicit economy, financed by theft and violence, that is destroying many of Britain's neighbourhoods. Police forces estimate that up to half of all property crime is drug-related.

Yet politicians across the divide have suggested little beyond further crackdowns that will, experience tells us, prove unsuccessful. Against them is ranged a growing lobby which supports the decriminalisation of even hard drugs, so that the drug world's black economy will be destroyed, along with the motive for a great deal of contemporary crime.

However rational this policy might be, it is unrealistic. Having encouraged a view that drug abusers can be defeated by force, politicians are not now in a position to lead public opinion towards such a U-turn. They would be accused of legislating for Nineties versions of Victorian gin mills.

There is an alternative that avoids the difficulties of decriminalisation while progressing from the present futile policies. This would be to offer heroin users doses of methadone, a synthetic substitute, administered daily by health or community workers. Evidence from the US - not to mention a recent experiment in Scottish prisons - suggests that long-term use of methadone allows addicts to reduce the harm that their habits do to themselves and their communities. It removes the craving for heroin; and, since its effects last for many hours, it does not produce the mood swings associated with heroin. Users are able to work and maintain relationships, freed from the need to commit crime to raise money for drugs. Many eventually wean themselves off the drug.

Methadone is no panacea: it cannot be used to treat crack addiction. But it points the way to a more constructive social approach to reducing the harm done by drug abuse.