We're making a hash of pot: Alison Halford argues that legalising cannabis can help to stem drugs crime

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THE EVIDENCE is all around us of how dreadful the drugs scene has become in Britain: kids stabbed with discarded syringes, a needle on every corner, drugs openly on sale, handbags snatched and premises looted to repay dealers. All this is happening in spite of years of preventive activity.

Now, disagreement has erupted among senior police officers about whether something more than law enforcement is needed to combat the drugs epidemic. Speaking on last week's BBC Panorama programme, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire said that he 'saw cannabis legislation coming'. In a subsequent survey, however, many chief constables were reported to favour a tougher policy towards cannabis, on the grounds that it provided a route into the country for hard drugs. The Home Secretary, for his part, has fanned the flames of indecision by swinging wildly away from previous directives on cautioning, to his recent proposal that fines for possession of cannabis should be increased fivefold.

Although it is 30 years since drug abuse emerged as a problem of significance, we have still not devised a satisfactory method to measure the true social cost of drug use in this country. Yet it is clear that here, as in the United States, the cost in terms of stolen merchandise and social misery is huge. Traffic in stolen goods now represents a broad avenue through which merchandise flows down from the affluent society to the needy one. It operates like a secret domestic Marshall Plan whereby poverty is partially alleviated through roots deeply embedded in the drugs culture all around it.

In June 1973, as an aspiring chief inspector in the community relations department at Scotland Yard, I was sent on a four-month fact-finding secondment to the United States and Canada. My brief - to write a paper on how the Metropolitan Police should involve itself in community-related drugs education. Many of my recommendations became the model for setting up police/community-based education and liaison initiatives in London.

Before writing my report, I had seen almost everyone who was anyone in the drugs scene in Baltimore and the surrounding state of Maryland. I spent two weeks at the National Drugs Abuse Training Centre in Washington. It was here, squatting on the tiled floor of the 'john', among an international mix of social workers and law enforcers, that I tentatively handled 'pot'. That soggy-ended reefer passed lovingly between us did nothing for me, nor did the memory of walls stained by the blood of addicts fixing themselves with hypodermics in the crypt under the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which I had visited on patrol in London.

Primly I wrote at para 219 of my dissertation that 'Although I do not advocate legalisation of marijuana . . . I believe that a good case can be made for decriminalising offences relating to marijuana possession.'

Since then, I have seen or read nothing that has changed my mind over the need to legalise cannabis. And even though the American drug control efforts of the Seventies were not always successful, some initiatives were productive and should have been worthy of further exploration over here. In Boston, children as young as five were exposed to drugs education that made use of puppets. It was a conscious decision, balanced between arousing unhealthy interest in drugs at a tender age and imparting accurate information in an attempt to redress the destructive dogma of the streets. Why, then, is this country only now finalising a 'Schools Charter' concerning drug education and prevention, starting at the age of four?

Perhaps the Dutch experience should also be taken on board. In the Netherlands, cannabis legalisation has reduced consumption. British drug abuse statistics go the other way.

Police forces have been involved with education and community liaison initiatives since the Sixties, yet cannabis remains the most widely abused drug, while seizures and arrests have fallen. But now the main functions of policing are under review.

Surely the time is ripe to devolve all responsibility of education and counselling from the police. They have lost credibility and the service can no longer countenance the conflict entailed in being law enforcer and social confessor. Perhaps the Government could restore the battered morale of the teaching profession by giving it the resources to lead the attack on drugs.

I finished my 1973 report by saying: 'It is unlikely that any of our current social evils are likely to disappear; on the contrary, our drugs problem is about to begin.' Today, illicit abuse affects almost every citizen in the land in some way. I wonder if the Home Office would care for sight of my ancient report. It might just help them to do the unthinkable.

The author is former Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside.

Angela Lambert's column will appear tomorrow.