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Leading article: The case against criminalisation

Friday 05 August 2011 00:00 BST

The Liberal Democrat party conference is to debate a motion calling on the Government to consider the case for decriminalising the possession of drugs for personal use. The proposal will cause an outcry in the usual quarters but it is a suggestion worthy of serious consideration. The global war on drugs is not succeeding. At best the flow of narcotics is temporarily stopped here and there. But the underlying problem remains.

The decriminalisation of drugs for personal use would tackle the problem from the other end. Instead of choking off supply it addresses demand. Trading in drugs would remain a criminal offence, but users would be offered help rather than threatened with punishment. This is not theory. It has worked in Portugal which in 2001 abolished criminal penalties for personal possession of marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Prison was replaced by therapy. It was not only cheaper, it has worked better. Illegal drug use among Portuguese teenagers has declined. Rates of HIV infection caused by sharing dirty needles have dropped. And the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled. It is an approach which clearly merits consideration in the UK.

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