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Tuesday, 28 March, 2000, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
Head to head: Soft drugs
Should people who are caught with cannabis or ecstasy for their own use be jailed? No, says a Police Foundation report.
Paul and Janet Betts, left, whose daughter Leah died after taking ecstasy in 1995, vehemently disagree. Labour MP Paul Flynn backs a liberalisation of our drugs laws.
The case for relaxing drug laws
Paul Flynn MP
"It's not working. So, we won't fix it."
That's the mule-headed message from government on the call to end the jailing of soft drugs users.
The equivalent of four and half British prisons are occupied by cannabis offenders. The UK is planning to build 20 more prisons at a cost of £20m each.
A young student from Somerset was jailed for doing what half a million other young people do every week. He had ecstasy tablets in his home. He spent three years in a jail overrun with heroin users.
Ex-prisoner Jonathan Aitken reported his astonishment at the "out of control drug culture" of prisons. Why send soft drug offenders into closed jails where heroin dominates life?
If we cannot keep a single British jail drug free, what hope is there of keeping soft drugs away from clubs, schools and offices? None. So let's reduce the harm.
The reasonable report from the Police Foundation was rubbished by the government before publication. No discussion. No debate. Just carry with on the same policies of prohibition that has made Britain the drug sink of Europe.
Instead of imitating the success of reductions in drug harm of other countries we continue to repeat the failures of the US, the country with the worst drug problems in the world.
The message that the government has sent out is that all illegal drugs are equally dangerous. It does not deter the majority of young people from experimenting with soft drugs.
Soon, they find that scare stories about cannabis are wild exaggeration - as true as warnings to earlier generations that certain sexual practices will make them go blind.
So they also disbelieve the scare stories about the killer addictive drugs of heroin and cocaine.
By using soft drugs they have already broken the taboo and crossed the line of illegality. A move into hard drugs is easy - the pushers are waiting.
The success of the Netherlands is to intelligently divide the soft and hard drugs markets. Experiments with soft drugs are no big deal. The result is that after 20 years of cannabis decriminalisation in Holland, fewer people use cannabis or hard drugs than here.
In Holland in 1980 the average age of the heroin addict was 28. It is now 44 and the total number of addicts is falling.
The UK is alone in Europe in having heroin addicts as young as 12. The increase in the total of addicts has been described by the drug czar Keith Hellawell as "alarming."
The message is: mindless prohibition increases drugs use, intelligent policies reduce drugs harm.
The case for tough drug laws
Paul and Janet Betts
The classification of a drug is dependent on the potential harm it can do - not deaths - HARM.
Ecstasy has so much potential for harm that it was banned for use in medicine during the 1980s in every country except Switzerland - and that was use under controlled conditions.
The World Health Organisation has recognised that cannabis causes a condition called Chronic Cannabis Intoxification - dropping out syndrome, lack of concentration, psychosis and loss of memory and ambition - all familiar to those that know regular cannabis users.
Out of touch
Users have harmed themselves and others while on LSD and some patients who were given the drug, under controlled conditions years ago, are still suffering flashbacks, nightmares, and psychosis.
Yet here we are, in danger of taking on board another load of recommendations which are totally out of touch with the harm which drugs like ecstasy, LSD, and cannabis cause.
Let's not get the medical use of cannabis mixed into the same debate as recreational use. The two are separate issues and should never be debated together.
When police forces were allowed to give instant cautions for possession we did, in effect, decriminalise ALL drugs.
But the amount of a drug that was considered to be for personal use remained a grey area. Police still have the option to prosecute if they consider that someone is "taking the mickey".
Now, we are talking of taking that option away. Dealers operating outside schools and in clubs, possessing only a few tablets at a time "for personal use", or a small amount of cannabis, will be laughing all the way to the bank.
The evidence is well documented - ecstasy is a highly neurotoxic drug. Cannabis is causing increasing problems, particularly today's cannabis which can have 40-60% THC content, unlike the 1-3% content in the 1960s.
Officially declassifying is a good way of massaging crime figures, so that police can say: "Look how our crime figures have gone down." Of course they will - any fool can see that.
These so-called softer drugs are causing youngsters to commit crime. And in the long term, our NHS bill, particularly in the mental health field, will be out of control.
If our government was to implement these recommendations, in the kids' eyes they would be rubber stamping the safety of these drugs. And if they do, we and thousands of parents like us will feel betrayed by a government which six weeks ago was telling us it would not go soft on drugs.
We have no chance of beating the big dealers - there is too much money and profit being made.
Our hope is with our kids - of giving them the true facts about drug use, so that when drugs are stuffed in their face they can tell the dealers to stuff themselves.
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