Memorandum submitted by the Police Federation
of England and Wales
1. The Police Federation is the representative
body for all members of the police service in England and Wales
below the rank of Superintendent. As such, we do not claim to
have any specialist expertise when discussing current Government
policies on drugs. In the light of the Home Affairs Committee's
current inquiry, we have sought the views of specialist police
officers throughout the service.
2. A very large majority of such officers
have told us that cannabis should not be legalised or decriminalised.
There is no significant support among our membership for the suggestion
that all drugs should be legalised or decriminalised.
3. The Committee is asking; does existing
drugs policy work? There is no simple answer to such a question.
The primary responsibility of the police is to use the law in
order to combat the illegal drugs trade. Over the past 30 years
or so, this trade has expanded into a multi-billion globalised
criminal enterprise that, in spite of all efforts by police and
other bodies, continues to grow at an alarming, if unquantifiable
rate. It is quite clear that, while international law enforcement
agencies have had significant successes in their efforts to combat
drugs trafficking, overall they are fighting a losing battle.
4. The advocates of legalisation and/or
decriminalisation point to the apparent failure of the criminal
law to prevent the increased use of illegal drugs as a powerful
argument for their cause. The same argument could be used to justify
decriminalising burglary and assaults, and to sweep away all road
traffic laws. In recent times, a number of criminal offences have
been abolished, such as attempted suicide and homosexual acts
between consenting adults. This was done because it was deemed
to be inappropriate to treat such acts as criminal, not because
the criminal law had failed to prevent them occurring. In two
areas closely related to the drugs issue, tobacco and alcohol,
legal prohibitions have not prevented young people below the statutory
ages from smoking and drinking, but there is no responsible body
of opinion that this would justify decriminalising these offences.
We do not believe that there is an overwhelming body of public
opinion that favours the major relaxation of current anti-drugs
5. There is more (but not majority) support
for the laws governing cannabis to be relaxed. This is based on
the view that cannabis is a recreational and non-addictive drug
that is relatively harmless. It is also said that as a very large
proportion of young people have used cannabis at some time, they
run an unfair risk of a serious criminal conviction that can affect
their future careers. The recent episode when Miss Anne Widdecombe,
the then Shadow Home Secretary, was ridiculed for proposing a
tougher approach to cannabis users by parliamentary colleagues,
who were willing, under the cloak of anonymity, to own up to having
used cannabis in their youth, illustrates the ambivalent attitude
to "recreational" drugs among opinion formers in society.
We believe that on this occasion the wrong message was sent out
to young people.
6. The fact is, that while it remains a
criminal offence to possess or to supply cannabis, the police
have been operating a reasonable approach. This recognises the
reality of the current situation and takes note of the more relaxed
attitudes of a significant section of the population. Such an
approach is consistent with the principle of policing by consent.
There is no real contradiction between a lenient police attitude
to possession for personal use, and continuing to target the criminals
who import and distribute the drug.
7. Cannabis enjoys a reputation for being
a fairly harmless recreational drug that is less injurious to
health than alcohol or tobacco. The evidence for this is arguable.
One of the effects of cannabis is to slow down the reaction times
of users. In July 2001 the Transport Research Laboratory revealed
that post-mortem tests had established that one fifth of drivers,
passengers and pedestrians killed in road incidents had recently
taken cannabis or Ecstasy, an increase of 600 per cent since the
mid-eighties. At the same time, it was found that relatively few
police officers have so far been trained to use new equipment
that enables motorists to be tested for drugs use. It is also
asserted that cannabis is not addictive, and does not lead users
on to other more harmful drugs. Drug squad officers have told
us that in their experience, most users of hard drugs started
off by taking cannabis.
8. The advocates of decriminalisation or
legalisation of cannabis choose to ignore the fact that in recent
years the amount of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis that
encourages both physical and psychological dependence, and is
highly abusable, has gone up from less than 1 per cent in the
1960s to as high as 30 per cent. (Source: US Department of Justice
Drug Enforcement Administration Report: Drug Legalisation:
Myths and Misconceptions 1994).
9. It is well known that many drugs users
commit crimes, and therefore advocates of decriminalisation and
legalisation suggest that their policy would lead to a drastic
reduction in crime. This argument fails to take account of other
possible, not to say probable, outcomes of such a policy. Illegal
drugs are now so cheap that legalisation is unlikely to bring
down prices. Low prices would in any case encourage drug users
to buy more drugs, leading to greater addiction. The decriminalisation
lobby also ignores the fact that many people commit crimes, including
violent crimes, while under the influence of drugs. Legalisation
would lead to an increase in drug users and a consequential rise
in such crimes. The liberalisation lobby also claims that legalising
drugs would end the black markets and organised gangs. This assumes
that the powerful international drug cartels would simply fade
away into the night. More likely scenarios are that they would
fight to maintain their lucrative street trading. The advocates
of change do not say how they would control drug manufacture and
supply, whether some prohibitions would remain to protect vulnerable
groups, and who would administer a new legalised drugs trade,
which presumably would run side by side with the illegal trade
that dominates the drug scene in the rest of the world. Presumably,
the enormous cost of a legalised drugs trade would be offset by
tariffs and taxation. Once these are introduced, smuggling would
follow and the illegal traders would be back in business.
10. Those who argue that decriminalisation
of drugs would destroy the criminal empires of those who are currently
making fortunes out of drugs, often point to the ending of alcohol
prohibition in the United States and suggest that this ended the
era of the criminal gangs who exploited prohibition. The historical
facts are different. Gang crime in America soon recovered as the
criminals concentrated on other racketeering.
11. It is our view that the Government is
right to reject the urgings of those who are calling for the legalisation
or decriminalisation of so-called soft drugs. There is no evidence
to suggest that such steps would lead to a decrease in the numbers
using the drugs. Worrying as the overall increase in the numbers
of young people who have taken drugs may be, if criminal sanctions
were to be removed, the numbers would be even higher. The siren
calls for decriminalisation and legalisation are not cries for
reality, they are the voice of surrender and despair.