Pubdate: Sat, 15 Jan 2000
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2000. The Economist Newspaper Limited.
Note: This article only appears in the printed version
UK: Going Dutch?
A Police Foundation report is about to recommend major changes to Britain's drugs law. The government should respond without delay.
The most far-reaching inquiry into drugs legislation for a quarter of a century will call next month for the decriminalisation of cannabis use and a fundamental shake-up of Britain's drugs laws. The findings of a committee set up by the Police Foundation, an independent research body partly funded by the Home Office, will provoke controversy and put pressure on the government to rethink its approach to drugs.
The committee is not an official body, but it is widely seen as a quasi-Royal Commission, set up with the tacit approval of the government. There are two chief constables among its members, and its sectariat includes former Home Office officials. The inquiry is chaired by Lady Runciman, a former member of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. It has spent two-and-a-half years examining the current state of the law.
The committee has concluded that the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act is arbitrary and inconsistent, and imposes heavy demands on the criminal justice system to little public benefit. Its most controversial recommendation is that possession of cannabis should never attract a prison sentence, but should instead be subject to fines or other penalties. At present possession of cannabis can be punished by up to seven years in jail. The latest Home Office figures on sentencing indicate that about 500 people were imprisoned in 1997 for possession of cannabis. And yet trade in cannabis and its use is an entrenched part of British life - as Jack Straw, the home secretary, well knows. His own teenage son was caught offering to sell cannabis to two reporters a couple of years ago.
Though removing the threat of prison for possession of cannabis is technically described as "depenalisation" rather than "decriminalisation", it would inevitably be viewed as moving Britain towards the more liberal Dutch approach. Cannabis is freely available in the Netherlands for sale in "coffee shops" in small quantities. The cost of five grammes, the maximum amount that can be legally purchased, is about Pound 11.50 ($19), enough to make about a dozen cigarettes. Britain will not go this far, since possession of marijuana will remain illegal even if the committee's recommendations are accepted. But "depenalisation" of soft drugs in Britain would be likely to lead to tacit acceptance of the sale of cannabis - much as the police currently allow brothels to function under the guise of massage parlours, even though allowing premises to be used for prostitution is illegal.
The committee will also call for significant changes to the classes and schedules of controlled drugs. The current act fails to distinguish sufficiently between hard and soft drugs. At present Ecstasy, a derivative of amphetamine, is grouped with heroin among the most dangerous Class A drugs, subject to the heaviest penalties for misuse. But 500,000 people are widely estimated to use Ecstasy each weekend in clubs. The report recommends that it should be downgraded and treated like cannabis as a soft, relatively harmless drug.
The report is also expected to call for a significant relaxation in the prohibition of the use of drugs such as cannabis for medical reasons. And it believes there should be a revision of the fuzzy border between supply and possession. Under two grammes of cannabis, it suggests that possession should be treated as a minor civil offence. Above two grammes, there could be a charge of supply, but the committee is expected to stress that the law should distinguish between social and commercial supply. Some of its members are said to be appalled by cases in which teenagers have been sent to prison for supplying a small group of friends with a single tablet of Ecstasy each.
Many of the committee's recommendations would bring the law into line with police practice. "Sending a drug addict to prison is like sending a drunkard to a brewery," one expert noted. Nearly half of all drug offences already attract merely a caution. And simple possession of soft drugs is rarely prosecuted. Edward Ellison, a former head of Scotland Yard's Drug Squad, argues: "There is no evidence that a repressive policy on drugs works."
But other police officers disagree. As a result, the zeal which drugs offences are pursued can depend on chance, or the policies of particular police forces. Two Cambridge care workers, charged with allowing their clients to deal in hard drugs in a day centre, were recently imprisoned for four and five years.
The government's response to the committee's report is likely to be cautious. Tony Blair, and Jack Straw, believe that the time is not ripe for radical reform. Other ministers, such as Clare Short, the secretary for overseas development, believe privately the law is "barking mad". With a general election approaching, the government will probably play for time, possibly by referring the issue to its own advisory council. A measure of its current hawkish position was the home secretary's outright rejection of a recent report by a House of Lords select committee, which recommended that marijuana should be made available for medical purposes.
Public opinion appears, however, to be moving in favour of fundamental change. A recent MORI poll found that 80% want the laws against cannabis relaxed, and only 17% believe that possession of cannabis should be illegal as at present. Mo Mowlem, the minister responsible for co-ordinating the government's drug policy, claimed this week that considerable progress had been made since the appointment of Keith Hellawell, a former chief constable of West Yorkshire, as "drugs czar". But there is little evidence that the government's policy is making inroads into drug-related crime. At least a third of crime in urban areas is drug-related, and nearly half of all house burglaries and thefts from cars are committed by drug users.
Britain continues to have a worse record for illicit drug use than any of its European neighbours. A study of all 15 EU countries by the European Monitoring Centre for drugs found that three times as many young Britons aged 15-16 said they had experimented with Ecstasy as French or Germans. Young Britons were also much more likely to have used hallucinogens and amphetamines and to have abused solvents.
The theory that a more permissive approach to soft drugs leads many to experiment with hard drugs has not been borne out in the Netherlands. That country has a lower prevalence of hard-drug addicts per head (1.6 per 1,000) than France (2.4), Britain (2.6), Italy (3.0), and Switzerland (5.0). If young adults wish to use soft drugs, argue the Dutch officials, it is better that they are not exposed to the criminal sub-culture surrounding hard drugs. Hence the famous coffee shops of Amsterdam. The Dutch Aid-prevention programme, with its distribution of free needles and extensive treatment programmes, also compares well with those of other countries. Nearly 40% of Aids victims across Europe are intravenous drug users, compared with just over 10% in the Netherlands. (END)
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