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MPs back plans for radical new drug laws (2002-04-02)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/drugs/Story/0,2763,677370,00.html

MPs back plans for radical new drug laws

MPs back proposals for radical new drug laws

Patrick Wintour Tuesday April 2, 2002 The Guardian

The last political obstacle to the relaxation of Britain's cannabis laws will be cleared this month when the Commons home affairs select committee backs plans by the home secretary, David Blunkett, to downgrade the classification of the drug, the Guardian has learned.

The all-party committee of MPs has looked at a first draft of the report and is also likely to call for radical measures to improve the treatment of heroin users, including wider prescription by GPs, and more use of diamorphine (medical heroin) to help control the chaotic multi-drug user. The committee has been struck by the overwhelming evidence that Britain's crime crisis has been fuelled by the use of hard drugs, especially heroin and crack cocaine, by a small minority of addicts.

One MP described the hard drug users as "one-man crime hot spots".

The MPs' report, originally due on April 9, is also likely to recommend urgent research into better treatment for crack cocaine.

Mr Blunkett has said he will only proceed with the reclassification of cannabis if the committee endorses that proposal. He is also awaiting Metropolitan police reports on an extended trial in Lambeth, south London, where police resources have been directed towards hard drug users, rather than cannabis possession. The Met is likely to back the scheme, despite resistance from the Police Federation.

The home affairs select committee, which has yet to vote on key recommendations, is lining up behind a reclassification of cannabis from a class B drug to class C. It will either recommend a new offence of possession with intent to supply commercially or simply propose abolition of intent to supply altogether.

A third option is to recommend that the home office set clear guidelines to courts on the amount of drugs an individual would have to possess to be charged with intent to supply.

Either way, possession below these levels would only lead to confiscation and a simple police written warning, so diverting court and police time to fight hard drugs. Arrests for the possession of cannabis rose from 14,857 to 22,303 between 1996 and 2000. However, arrests for supplying or offering to supply cannabis fell in that period from 1,559 to 1,001.

Mr Blunkett announced the government's proposal to reclassify cannabis when he gave evidence to the select committee last October, overturning years of establishment resistance. Since then, the advisory council on the misuse of drugs has rejected suggestions that cannabis is a gateway to harder drugs. Most of the select committee members, including some Tories, will endorse the advisory council's position.

The committee is likely to back the trend towards greater spending on drug treatment in the face of evidence that £1 spent on treatment saves £3 in term of crime. The MPs will reject extreme demands for the legalisation of heroin, but favour schemes in parts of Germany and the Netherlands that allow registered long-term heroin users access to the drug, either in special centres or in the community.

Some MPs want the committee to endorse more treatment centres, and liberalisation of the supply of diamorphine to addicts. Some heroin users resist treatment based on methadone since it does not meet their physical or psychological needs. At present, only consultant psychiatrists and their clinical assistants may issue licences to prescribe diamorphine (medical heroin) to drug addicts

The drugs minister, Bob Ainsworth, has already indicated that the Home Office and the Department of Health will consider clarifying guidelines on diamorphine. It is anxious about liberalising the dispensing of the drug, since it requires injections and quickly repeated doses.

The Royal College of General Practitioners and the Swedish health minister told the committee that they opposed the move, arguing that total prohibition was the only effective message.

The government keeps no central figures on the number of heroin users who are prescribed methadone or diamorphine.

Although there is no sign of an increase in heroin use, evidence reported to the commit tee shows that a growing number of heroin users also take crack cocaine. One MP said: "Heroin provides the need and the desire to commit crime; crack provides the bottle to carry the crime out." Few adequate substitutes are available for crack, and the committee will call for further research in the area.

It will also call for greater help for drug dependent prisoners on their discharge, following evidence that they either revert to drugs or suffer overdoses. Although the government has increased the number of drug treatment places, in line with its targets, the committee has been struck by the still lengthy waiting time for treatment.

Accurate figures are difficult to obtain, the committee found. However, the number of heroin users in Britain has risen from to 1,000 in 1971 to 250,000 at present. During the six-month period ending September 30 2000, about 21,200 people reported for inclusion on regional drug misuse data bases in England, seeking treatment for heroin abuse. Only 6,200 of these were immediately prescribed methadone as treatment.

Safe treatment centres for hard-core heroin users would reduce the risk of infections, undercut the criminally-run market and start to reduce overall crime levels. The committee was told by the Home Office that 95% of drug-related crime was committed by hard-core users and the total cost to society was as high as £10bn-£18bn a year.