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Punitive drug law enforcement failing, says Home Office study

There is no evidence that tough enforcement of the drug laws on personal possession leads to lower levels of drug use, according to the UK government’s first evidence-based study.

Examining international drug laws, the groundbreaking Home Office document brings to an end 40 years of almost unbroken official political rhetoric that only harsher penalties can tackle the problem caused by the likes of heroin, cocaine or cannabis.

It is signed off by the Conservative home secretary, Theresa May, and the Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker, and will be published alongside an official expert report calling for a general ban on the sale and trade in legal highs.

Baker said the international comparisons demonstrated that “banging people up and increasing sentences does not stop drug use”. He said the last 40 years had seen a drugs debate in Britain based on the “lazy assumption in the rightwing press that if you have harsher penalties it will reduce drug use, but there is no evidence for that at all”.

Baker added: “If anything the evidence is to the contrary.”

The minister added that wider societal factors, such as a more risk-averse generation of young people, who suffered fewer alcohol problems and were healthier, contributed to the general downward trend in drug use.

It documents in detail the successes of the health-led approach in Portugal combining decriminalisation with other policies, and shows reductions in all types of drug use alongside falls in drug-related HIV and Aids cases.

The Home Office international research paper on the use of illegal drugs, which redeems a Liberal Democrat 2010 election pledge for a royal commission to examine the alternatives to the current drug laws, also leaves the door open on the legalisation experiments in the American states of Washington and Colorado, and in Uruguay.

By Alan Travis
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