We need to take a hard look at drugs

It's time practical policy replaced panic, says Ian Hargreaves
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The problem with British policy towards drug abuse is obvious: it isn't working. By every possible indicator, illegal drug use and the crime that goes with it is rising inexorably.

The problem with the standard liberal critique of this policy is also obvious. Legalisation or decriminalisation of restricted drugs can be argued from either a libertarian or a social management point of view. But whichever way it's argued, the public is not ready to buy.

This polarisation does not prove there is a middle way, but it suggests we ought to be looking for one. A Royal Commission on illegal drugs is the way to conduct that search. Let's imagine what it might come up with.

An inquiry would take as its starting point the Government's current drugs policy, Tackling Drugs Together. The virtues of this approach are widely agreed. For the first time it attempts to co-ordinate all agencies at local and national level. But no one seems confident that this three- year plan will achieve its objective: to curb the volume of drug abuse and drug crime.

Tackling Drugs Together lacks boldness. It mumbles about the importance of reducing the harm caused by drugs, while still insisting upon the wholly unrealistic goal of abstinence. And it fails to challenge the spending priorities of existing policy, which channel 69 per cent of the Government's budget to law enforcement and only 31 per cent to education and treatment.

The inappropriateness of this balance will be reinforced when the Government publishes shortly an overdue Department of Health task force report into treatment services for drug abusers. Commissioned in 1994, thishas turned into the largest assessment of the effectiveness of drug treatment services ever undertaken in Europe.

This effectiveness review will add force to the argument that treatment programmes are a better buy than more law enforcement. Well run services for heroin addicts, which offer long-term methadone substitution or other sustained treatment regimes, are judged to be highly effective. One large American study, cited in the task force report, suggests such treatment programmes offer the taxpayer a seven to one pay-back, mainly in reduced crime. Some police officers would now like powers to direct serious drug abusers towards such programmes without involving the courts.

A Royal Commission would be able to build on this review, but in a way that generated a more open public debate and started to counter some of the public's more baseless fears. It would not confine its analysis to treatment programmes, but would also analyse the effectiveness of current approaches to law enforcement.

The commission could offer an authoritative view of the health risks of the most widely used drugs, helping us to judge whether Ecstasy, for example, which until the Sixties was used in marriage therapy, is appropriately ranked with heroin as a Class A dangerous drug.

A Royal Commission would also conduct economic analysis to understand how supply and demand might be affected if the authorities change the rules by licensing and taxing particular drugs. Could we achieve lower consumption of a drug such as cannabis, if that is the object of policy, by licensing, regulating and taxing it, as with tobacco? Legalisation of cannabis would make a big impact on crime figures, since four-fifths of all recorded drug offences concern this substance.

Our political leaders have made a serious mistake in setting their face against a large-scale inquiry of this kind. All three parties are afraid of appearing soft on drugs and yet it has now been evident for a decade that the alternative merely results in more consumption of illegal drugs, more crime and more blighting of young lives through criminalisation.

The Government's argument against a Royal Commission is that it already has all the expert advice it needs. Perhaps it will learn from the beef catastrophe that expert advice has to interact with public opinion through extensive debate if it is to be useful. Labour is primarily worried about being seen to be soft on drugs and mistakenly assumes that support for a Royal Commission implies an open mind about the legalisation of cannabis, hence the silencing of Clare Short on this subject.

A Royal Commission established this year would be delivering useful input to government at just the time it is due to review Tackling Drugs Together in 1998 or 1999. Keith Hellawell, who chairs the Association of Chief Constables drugs committee, and officials who have worked at the highest levels in the Home Office and the Department of Health, are calling for such a commission. Their voices combine with many others of great experience. It is time they were heeded.

The writer is a former editor of the 'Independent' and has recently been appointed editor of the 'New Statesman'. Tonight he reports for Public Eye in 'Beyond The Drugs War' at 8pm on BBC2.

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