The tiny crack in Britain's prohibitionist drug policies created when Home Secretary David Blunkett announced in June that cannabis users would no longer be arrested come spring has now grown into a gaping fissure. DRCNet has reported repeatedly on the sudden rush to rationality in British drug policy, most recently on the legal battles surrounding the opening of a cannabis café in Manchester and the government's drug advisory panel's recommendation for more such cafés (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/212.html#businessasusual). In the latest signs of imminent drug war collapse in Britain, the country's police chiefs are now calling for the free, legal distribution of heroin to addicts. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third political party, have joined a growing call to lessen the penalties for ecstasy.
Regarding heroin, Sir David Phillips, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) told the Sunday Telegraph (London), "The system has failed. We have an out-of-control drug industry, and it is time to try a new approach."
An unnamed police chief elaborated for the Telegraph. "If we provide free heroin to anyone who wants it, then at a stroke we eliminate a multi-billion-pound criminal conspiracy. No one would buy heroin if they can get it free."
According to Phillips, the police chiefs will call for the National Health Service to dispense heroin in official premises staffed by police, social workers and medical personnel. Possession or use of the drug outside such premises would remain a criminal offense under the ACPO plan.
The ACPO position, which represents a radical departure from the group's current posture, will be formalized next month. In the meantime, ACPO has been in consultations with police chiefs throughout England, Ireland and Wales, and Phillips is meeting this week with Andrew Hayman, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, to finalize the announcement.
In calling for far-reaching reforms, the police chiefs are building on the Cleveland Report, published two years ago by the Cleveland police in England's northeast. While the report's proposals were not adapted at that time, they will form the basis of the new ACPO position and will serve as a focus for the growing national debate on drug legalization.
The report, written by Cleveland Chief Constable Barry Straw, criticized British drug policy as "ineffective" and "clearly based upon American experience."
"There is overwhelming evidence to show that the prohibition-based policy in place in this country since 1971 has not been effective in controlling the use or availability of proscribed drugs," wrote Straw. "If there is indeed a war on drugs, it is not being won; drugs are demonstrably cheaper and more readily available than ever before. It seems that the laws of supply and demand are operating in textbook fashion. If a sufficiently large (and apparently growing) part of the population chooses to ignore the law for whatever reason, then that law becomes unenforceable. A modern Western democracy, based on policing by consent and the rule of law, may find itself powerless to prevent illegal activity -- in this case the importation and use of controlled drugs."
After citing links between drug prohibition and both street crime and organized crime, Straw went on to list a number of policy conclusions:
While the police chiefs' plan has engendered criticism from the usual suspects, it has also drawn flak from unexpected quarters. Dame Ruth Runciman, who chaired a 1999 Police Foundation look at drug policy calling for the decriminalization of cannabis, said the plan had not been properly thought out.
"I support some increase in prescribing heroin by family doctors, but I think a scheme of this kind would cause many problems," she told the Telegraph. "It would be difficult to decide on the spot whether someone should be prescribed heroin and what dose to give them. I am also far from convinced that there would be a large drop in crime," she said. "There is certainly some evidence linking drugs with crime, but there are also many other factors which cause crime, including social conditions."
While police and drug reformers go around over just how heroin should be made available, British policy toward the popular club drug ecstasy is also under increasing pressure. Joining earlier calls from police officials and political figures, the Liberal Democratic Party had endorsed a party drug policy report calling for the reclassification downward of both ecstasy and cannabis. Ecstasy is currently a Class A drug, a classification reserved for the most dangerous drugs, such as heroin, and cannabis is a Class B drug. The Liberals will call for ecstasy to become Class B and cannabis to become Class C. (The Labor government has already proposed such a change in the cannabis classification.)
"The current position is one that is completely out of control," said Baroness Walmsley, who headed the party panel. "The status quo is no longer an option," she told BBC News. Saying that classifying ecstasy as a very dangerous drug brought British drug policies into disrepute, Walmsley added that, "There is a common view that the majority of people experience no immediate ill-effects [from ecstasy]," she said. "There is clearly a danger that some will come to the conclusion that other Class A drugs like heroin present few dangers and will be tempted to try them also."
Liberal Democrats will have the opportunity to go even further at their party convention in March. According to BBC, delegates will have the opportunity to vote on two competing proposals on imprisoning drug users. They will have the chance to vote on the Runciman Commission's recommendation that jailing of Class B and C drug possessors be ended. Or they can vote to end the jailing of all drug possessors, including Class A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.