Letter: Laws the drug barons love

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Sir: It is indeed sad that the Government should show total lack of nerve over the call by one of its own MPs for a Royal Commission on drugs ("Calls grow for national debate on drugs", 11 August). It will never have a more comfortable majority to cushion itself against the uniformed prejudices of Middle England.

I was a drug education officer in the 1970s and nothing has changed since then except the initials of the drugs. Governments still feel the need to display "tough" postures and talk about "wars on drugs" rather than engage in informed and productive debate. The war against drugs was lost long ago. The enemy has long been within our gates, encouraged and attracted by the fat profits that the illegality of drug use provides. The well- known effects of Prohibition on the US in the 1920s say everything that needs to be said.

In the 1970s we, as drug educators, were saying that the most dangerous thing about illegal drugs was their illegality. It creates a climate of excitement and daring around drug use that attracts young people experimenting with life. Illegality makes criminals of otherwise law-abiding young people, driving them into common cause with the drug suppliers. Having developed a problem, illegality discourages people from seeking help and treatment at an early stage and leads them into criminal activity to pay the high prices that illegality promotes. Treatment programmes often suffer from the need to reinforce the "tough" stance of their supporting governments, so that heroin maintenance schemes are discontinued in favour of methadone, a worse drug but with a "cleaner" image.

Those who have most enthusiasm for keeping drug use illegal and are most against informed debate are the drug barons themselves. The day we begin treating drug use and abuse as a social problem to be addressed rather than as a criminal activity to be punished is the day their profits tumble and their business withers.