Bar chairman backs calls to reconsider drug laws

One of Britain's most senior lawyers has delivered a dramatic boost to the campaign to change the law on drugs.

Nicholas Green QC, chairman of the UK Bar Council, has come closer than any previous incumbent of the post to calling for the decriminalisation of personal use of drugs including heroin, cocaine and cannabis.

In his chairman's report to the Bar Council last month, Mr Green wrote: "Another political hot potato is drugs. Drug-related crime costs the economy about £13bn a year.

"A growing body of comparative evidence suggests that decriminalising personal use can have positive consequences; it can free up huge amounts of police resources, reduce crime and recidivism and improve public health. All this can be achieved without any overall increase in drug usage. If this is so, then it would be rational to follow suit."

He adds: "A rational approach is not usually the response of large parts of the media when it comes to issues relating to criminal justice.

"This is something the Bar Council can address. We are apolitical; we act for the prosecution and the defence and most of the judiciary are former members. We can speak out in favour of an approach which urges policies which work and not those which simply play to the gallery. And this will save money and mean that there is less pressure on the justice system."

His remarks appear in the context of an appeal to colleagues to "fight to prevent further cuts in criminal legal aid fees". But his support for decriminalisation has been seized upon by drugs campaigners as evidence that the policy approach is now winning mainstream acceptance.

Explicit backing for decriminalisation also comes from the editor of one of Britain's leading medical journals. Writing in the current issue of the British Medical Journal, Fiona Godlee endorses an article by Steve Rolles, head of research at Transform, the drugs foundation, calling for an end to the war on drugs and its replacement by a legal system of regulation and control.

"In a beautifully argued essay Stephen Rolles calls on us to envisage an alternative to the hopelessly failed war on drugs. He says, and I agree, that we must regulate drug use, not criminalise it," Dr Godlee says.

Evidence that a policy of total prohibition on drugs has not only failed but is counter-productive has been accepted by a succession of committees in the UK including the Police Foundation, the Prime Minister's strategy unit, the Royal Society of Arts and the UK Drug Policy Consortium.

The Home Affairs Select Committe, whose members included David Cameron, called in 2002 for the Government to "initiate discussion of alternative ways – including the possibility of legalisation and regulation – to tackle the global drugs dilemma."

Danny Kushlick, head of external affairs at Transform, said: "These comments show that support for drug policy reform is becoming more and more mainstream, and fundamental change is now inevitable.

"With a Prime Minster and Deputy Prime Minister both long-standing supporters of alternatives to the war on drugs, at the very least the Government must initiate an impact assessment comparing prohibition with decriminalisation and strict legal regulation."

A spokesperson for the Bar Council said it disagreed with the interpretation being placed on Mr Green's remarks. "He didn't say he was in favour of decriminalisation. He said if there was sufficient evidence he would follow that argument to its conclusion.

"He would make a decision based on the evidence, not on what any particular lobby group wants. There is a growing body of evidence but it has not reached the point where we can make a decision either way."

The case against prohibition

*The decriminalisation of drugs is not the same as legalisation. Lawmakers draw a distinction between users and dealers of drugs. Decriminalisation for personal use would mean that individuals would not be prosecuted for possession of small amounts of drugs, kept for their own use. People found in possession of larger amounts would still face arrest and prosecution.

*International evidence shows that decriminalisation does not necessarily lead to the increased use. In Portugal, all drugs were decriminalised in 2001 and use among people of school age has since fallen.

*In the US, states that have decriminalised cannabis do not have higher levels of use than states that have not.

*An experiment in Brixton, south London, in which cannabis was effectively decriminalised in 2001, saved 1,350 hours of police time in six months.

*In the Netherlands, where cannabis can be bought in licensed cafés, the level of use is not signficantly different from neighbouring countries which ban the drug.

*A World Health Organisation study concluded: "Globally drug use is not distributed evenly and is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent use-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones."

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