Legalise heroin, says former police chiefMichael White, political editor
MPs listen to reformers' arguments for healthier and safer system
A former chief constable yesterday led fresh calls for the legalisation of heroin and other controlled drugs as the only realistic means of reversing a rising tide of "illness, death and crime" among users.
As drug reform campaigners warned MPs that decriminalisation would only tackle the worst excesses of a crime-dominated drug culture, Francis Wilkinson, former chief constable of Gwent, declared that regulation of the drugs market in Britain would be "the most effective crime prevention measure any government could take".
Fearing a successful court action under the Human Rights Act, the home secretary, David Blunkett, last month announced that cannabis users would no longer be arrested or prosecuted for possession of small quantities.
With the drugs debate suddenly in ferment again after years of all-party hostility to reform, Mr Wilkinson's call was echoed in evidence yesterday to the Commons cross-party home affairs select committee which is investigating options for change.
They were armed with a Home Office paper warning them of the weaknesses of the pro-reformers' arguments.
MPs heard from the Legalise Cannabis Alliance and other campaigners, as well as from Nick Davies, the journalist and broadcaster, whose Guardian series on drugs in Britain last June was sent to committee members.
In a pamphlet for the Liberal Democrat thinktank, the Centre for Reform, Mr Wilkinson, said that Britain has the most rampant heroin problem in the western world - 270,000 users compared with only 1,000 registered addicts in 1971 - and more heroin-related crime than the US.
"The only way to reduce the problem... is to supply heroin officially to users in a way that will minimise the leakage of those supplies," said Mr Wilkinson.
He urges a two-year pilot scheme, funded and monitored by the Home Office, in which heroin in supplied by a unit that provides medical assistance, counselling and supervision.
At Westminster MPs heard even more radical advocacy from witnesses who argued that heroin in itself is not harmful and that it is the illegal production and distribution of Class A drugs of dubious quality which both pushes up prices - and crime - and endangers lives.
"The issue is the harm, not the supply," said Roger Warren Evans, a barrister, and co-author of the pro-legalisation Angel Declaration.
Nick Davies told MPs that he was "extremely grateful" that the ex-drugs tsar Keith Halliwell's strategy had failed. "If he had succeeded, there would be more illness, more death and more crime," as shortages pushed up prices and reduced the quality of banned drugs.
"No drug becomes safer when you hand its production and distribution to criminals," said Mr Davies, who stressed that he did not want people to use heroin but did want them to have informed choices.
The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act had created a form of "pyramid selling" whereby users sold drugs to their friends and smoked the profits, thus spreading it rapidly through towns and villages as well as big cities.
In contrast to witnesses who spoke of the hopelessness of heroin addicts, often victims of poverty abuse and unresolved bereavement, Conor McNicholas, editor of Muzik Magazine, said ecstasy and its successors among designer drugs are being used by "very bright, very able, young consumers" in the dance culture of contemporary Britain.
They know what they want when clubbing and how to offset the side effects - "they treat their bodies as chemistry sets," said Mr McNicholas.
"They are trying to establish their identity, a personality, through brands, clothes, records, posters on their wall. Part of that is the drugs they are taking," he said.
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