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October 13, 2007 - South Wales Evening Post (UK)

Is This The Way To Win The War Against Drugs?

By Jason Evans

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

One of Wales's most senior police officers is calling for radical changes to drugs laws -- including legalising heroin. Post Crime Jason Evans looks at the controversial proposals.

The war on drugs is a phrase that is easy to use, and one often over-used by commentators and politicians. But is it a war that can ever be won?

And what would victory look like?

Are we talking about getting rid of drugs altogether or reducing their use to a manageable or acceptable level?

And what about booze, the biggest killer of them all?

The drugs debate is highly emotive and views tend to be polarised -- it is a brave, or foolhardy, individual who speaks out with controversial comments.

Enter one of Wales's senior police officers, the Chief Constable of North Wales Richard Brunstrom.

In a no-holds-barred report to be presented to his police authority on Monday, he will say the current drugs laws have failed and should be swept away.

He has said he will be "campaigning hard" for drugs such as heroin to be legalised.

In a 30-page document entitled Drugs Policy -- A Radical Look Ahead, Mr Brunstrom paints a bleak picture of Britain's so-called war on drugs.

He writes: "UK drugs policy for the last several decades has been based upon prohibition with a list of banned substances placed into three classes -- the ABC system -- and Draconian criminal penalties for the possession or supply of controlled drugs.

"This system has not worked well.

"Illegal drugs are now in plentiful supply, and have become consistently cheaper in real terms over the years.

"The number of users has increased dramatically.

"Drug crime has soared equally dramatically as a direct consequence of the illegality of some drugs and the huge profits from illegal trading have supported a massive rise in organised criminality."

He brands the current system as illogical as it excludes alcohol and tobacco, and he says it should be replaced.

"If policy on drugs is in future to be pragmatic not moralistic, driven by ethics not dogma, then the current prohibitionist stance will have to be swept away as both unworkable and immoral," he writes.

"A new classification system, a 'hierarchy of harm' encompassing all substances of abuse and based upon identified social harms, should, in my opinion, be at the centre of a new substance misuse regime -- one based upon evidence, not moralistic dogma."

His comments support proposals put forward by the Academy of Medical Sciences earlier this year.

The academy has labelled the current laws as "not fit for purpose" and has drawn-up an alternative system which lists all drugs, including tobacco and alcohol, according to the harm they do -- harm to the individual user, and harm to wider society.

Under the new ranking, heroin and cocaine come top but the legal drugs of booze and tobacco are high on the list of harm -- fifth and ninth respectively.

Substances including amyl nitrites, ecstasy and steroids are reckoned to be less harmful and are further down the list.

The new system was developed by a team led by professors David Nutt, from the University of Bristol, and Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council.

The chief constable is to submit his controversial views to an Assembly-led consultation on the future direction of policy on substance misuse.

But while Mr Brunstrom has been happy to join the drugs debate, South Wales Police are staying tight-lipped on the subject. A spokeswoman said the force does not want to make any public comment on the topic.

The force's reluctance to get involved in the debate is perhaps understandable, given the sensitivity of the issue. Drugs are one of those topics which provoke a strong response.

But Ifor Glyn, manager of the Swansea Drugs Project, said it is a debate which we all have to face up to.

"I welcome the comments from North Wales," he said.

"I don't necessarily agree with what he has said, but drugs policy is something that has got to be talked about.

"We need an open and far-ranging debate about where we are going -- our drugs laws have not worked in the past, and are not working now."

But Mr Glyn said he was under no illusion about the hostility such a debate would provoke.

He said: "It is going to be so easy for people to crucify the chief constable for saying what he has said.

"But the fact is we do need an honest and open debate on what we should do and how we should do it."

Swansea Drugs Project is celebrating its 25th anniversary next year, and Mr Glyn said it has never been busier.

"We are continually expanding our services and we are seeing more clients than ever before," he said.

"I don't think the current laws are working -- we need to find the right balance between prevention and education.

"More people are taking illegal drugs than ever before and there is a massive problem with alcohol abuse in Wales.

"Britain has some of the toughest laws in Europe yet we have some of the highest rates of substance misuse.

"Legal and illegal drugs have never been more readily available or cheaper -- and the easy access to them by young people is very worrying.

"This is not just a problem in the cities but in rural communities throughout South West Wales as well."

Research suggests that drug addiction rates in Britain are double those in France, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.

And the cost of drug-related crime in England and Wales is estimated at more than UKP13 billion a year.

The number of people jailed for drug offences has rocketed by more than 100 per cent since 1994, while the price of drugs on the street has plummeted.

Swansea's senior police officer, Chief Superintendent Mark Mathias, has said the city has a class-A drugs problem which isn't going away.

If there is a war on drugs then many are asking how well are we doing?

There is an old military principle which says: "Don't reinforce failure."

Has the time now come for a radical new strategy in the battle?

Mr Brunstrom's views have attracted criticism, even before his report is delivered.

Tory MP Cheryl Gillan, the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, said: "Drugs ruin lives and destroy communities. They also undermine all our other efforts to fight crime.

"We disagree with the chief constable's argument that the fight against drugs cannot be won.

"The Conservative Party remains opposed to the legalisation of drugs. We are determined to take real action to help addicts and punish dealers."

Whatever side of the debate you are on, Mr Glyn from the Swansea Drugs Project said the issue cannot be ignored.

"The whole topic of drugs is very emotive," he said.

"But it is something we have to face -- it affects us all."

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