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Legalise Drugs! From maverick to mainstream

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Mark Easton | 14:40 UK time, Thursday, 4 September 2008

For most of the 20th century, it was pretty much only liberal fundamentalists and glassy-eyed hippies who argued for the legalisation of all drugs. But since the millennium, the mavericks and ideologues have found their ideas are not seen as so outlandish after all.

Last month, a post about drugs policy on this blog prompted a broadly positive discussion about legalisation.

Among those who posted was Julian Critchley who a few years ago was the Director of the UK Anti-Drug Co-ordination Unit in the Cabinet Office. He wrote: "What harms society is the illegality of drugs and all the costs associated with that. There is no doubt at all that the benefits to society of the fall in crime as a result of legalisation would be dramatic." Mr Critchley described how "the overwhelming majority of professionals" in the drugs field shared his view.

Jack Cole, Director of LEAPThis morning, I listened to a former American police officer from New Jersey, Jack Cole on the BBC Today programme arguing the same thing. The ex-DI worked as an undercover narcotics officer for twelve years, investigating everyone from street drug users to international "billion-dollar" drug trafficking organisations.

But having retired, his disillusionment with the US drugs policy saw him set up LEAP, which now boasts 10,000 members including police, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, and FBI agents.

The last few years have seen an extraordinary shift in thinking about this issue with increasingly mainstream figures arguing we should consider legalisation as an alternative to what they regard as the failure of the law-enforcement strategy.

In 2002 the man who hopes to be our next Prime Minister, David Cameron, argued that the British government should initiate discussion with the UN about possible legalisation of drugs.

As a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee he accepted that "many sensible and thoughtful people" have proposed legalising all or most presently illegal drugs."There may come a day when the balance may tip in favour of legalising" the committee said but concluded they were being invited to take a step into the unknown. "To tread where no other society has yet trod" and declined, in their words, "to recommend this drastic step".

Drastic, but worth talking about. Why? Because it was becoming increasingly clear that what Richard Nixon first called "The War on Drugs" was not being won. A few months after that committee report was published, Tony Blair was shown a presentation on drugs by his strategy team in Number Ten.

"Attempts to intervene have not resulted in sustainable disruption to the (drug supply) market at any level" he was told. "Even if supply-side interventions were more effective, it is not clear that the impact on the harms caused by serious drug users would be reduced."

This was not what Blair wanted to hear. The internal indictment of drugs policy was quietly buried. It took two years, a series of Freedom of Information demands and a leak before the advice finally saw the light of day.

By then, the anti-prohibitionists had gained in confidence and influence. There were public calls for decriminalisation, regulation or legalisation of illegal drugs from a broad group including MPs, peers, police officers and judges.

Increasingly, the government found its drugs strategy under attack. In 2006, another Select Committee published a report entitled "Drug Classification: Making a Hash of It".

Earlier this summer, the influential UK Drugs Policy Commission concluded that "law enforcement efforts have had little adverse effect on the availability of illicit drugs in the UK".

While not calling directly for legalisation, its final thought was this: "It has been suggested that if demand for illicit drugs - and all its associated costs - were to increase even modestly, then over time, the pressure to re-examine the current legislative structure for controlling drugs will be overwhelming".

We are not there yet. The political mainstream still see no electoral advantage in even engaging with a debate on legalisation. When pressed, they predict disaster - more drug abusers and no drop in crime. But a view not so long ago dismissed as the province of weirdoes and wackoes, is slowly edging towards centre stage.


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