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Leading Article: This foolish hard line on drugs

THE DEBATE about drugs was rekindled this week. Sir Ian Blair, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, set the tone on Tuesday with some ill-judged remarks about cocaine. He decided to use the first day of his new job to grab headlines with a naive and foolish warning to "middle- class drug users" that a crackdown is in store. According to the new commissioner there can be nothing "socially acceptable" about hard drugs.

But the effect of this populist clarion call was somewhat spoiled by the publication, a couple of days later, of research by Glasgow's Caledonian University into a group of people who combine the regular use of heroin with a relatively normal life. They have stable relationships, decent jobs and are productive members of society. It is a far cry from the usual image of desperate addicts and showed up the crassness of the new police commissioner's approach. Pretending that the use of hard drugs can result only in disaster is an exercise in futility. Millions of people know from personal experience that this is not the case.

Sir Ian spoke of "misery on the streets of London's estates and blood on the roads to Colombia and Afghanistan" caused by the drug trade. Yes, the trade is dangerous and yes, it causes misery and oppression in the producer countries - but to a large extent this is because of its illegality. The supply chains are controlled by gangsters who will go to any lengths to protect their multibillion-pound markets. Sir Ian can target all the recreational users he likes, but he will neither stop the drug trade nor alleviate any of that misery.

This is not to argue, of course, that the use of hard drugs is never harmful. The chronicles of the self-destructive musician Pete Doherty, documented with such unseemly glee by the media, shows the terrible damage drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine can inflict. Doherty, like thousands of other addicts in this country, clearly needs expert help and support. But the provision of rehabilitation centres in this country is still sorely lacking - and when politicians and police commissioners are so busy parading their "hard line" on drug users, can we really be surprised?

Politicians, the police and the media should adopt a more mature attitude towards drugs. The hard truth is that drugs are a health and social problem; the emphasis should be on harm reduction and rehabilitation. It is high time this debate had an injection of sanity.