Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 laws.

  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.

January 2002

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