Sarah Boseley, health editor guardian.co.uk, Monday 16 August
One of the UK's leading doctors said today the government should consider decriminalising drugs because the blanket ban has failed to cut crime or improve health.
"I'm not saying we should make heroin available to everyone, but we should be treating it as a health issue rather than criminalising people," said Sir Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians.
Gilmore put his position on the record publicly today after telling fellows and members of the college last month in a statement that he felt like "finishing my presidency on a controversial note".
He gave his backing to Nicholas Green, chairman of the Bar Council, who recently suggested individual use be decriminalised.
"This could drastically reduce crime and improve health," said Gilmore, who added that drugs should still be regulated.
He praised an article published on 13 July in the British Medical Journal by Stephen Rolles, senior policy analyst at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which, he said, clearly made the argument for decriminalisation.
Rolles pointed out not only that criminalising drug use had exacerbated health problems such as HIV, which can be spread by the use of contaminated needles, but had created a much larger array of secondary harms, including "vast networks of organised crime, endemic violence related to the drug market, corruption of law enforcement and governments, militarised crop eradication programmes (environmental damage, food insecurity, and human displacement), and funding of terrorism and insurgency."
Decriminalisation in Portugal in 2001, Rolles said, had led to a fall in drug use among young people. A study by the World Health Organisation, he added, has shown that countries taking tough action do not have lower levels of drug use than countries with liberal policies.
The editor of the British Medical Journal, Dr Fiona Godlee, gave her personal support to Rolles' call for decriminalisation.
"He says, and I agree, that we must regulate drug use, not criminalise it," she wrote in the journal.
Danny Kushlik, head of external affairs at Transform, which campaigns for legalisation, said the intervention of senior medical professionals was significant.
"Sir Ian's statement is yet another nail in prohibition's coffin," he said. "The Hippocratic oath says: 'First, do no harm'. Physicians are duty bound to speak out if the outcomes show that prohibition causes more harm than it reduces."
He added: "With a prime minister and deputy prime minister both longstanding supporters of alternatives to the war on drugs, at the very least the government must initiate an impact assessment comparing prohibition with decriminalisation and strict legal regulation."
Nicholas Green, chairman of the Bar Council, made his comments in a report in the profession's magazine, in which he said that drug-related crime costs the economy about £13bn a year. There was growing evidence that decriminalisation could free up police resources, reduce crime and recidivism and improve public health.
Last month, Professor David Nutt, who was sacked as the Labour government's top drugs adviser after saying ecstasy was less harmful than alcohol, said the UK needed a radical new approach to drugs laws, which may include the regulated sale of some drugs.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010