The government is keen to make an impact in two vital areas of public health. Chris Johnston reports on the effectiveness of drugs legislation
Much has changed in Britain since 1971, but one thing that affects many of its people has not: the law on illicit drugs. Introduced by Edward Heath's Conservative government, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, amended in 1985, still determines penalties for the use, possession and dealing of controlled drugs.
Widespread doubts about the act's effectiveness are reflected by the Police Foundation's recent appointment of a committee of inquiry. The inquiry has been prompted by the concern of several chief constables about the amount of police time now spent on drug-related offences. Convictions for cannabis offences have more than tripled in a decade, rising from 18,213 in 1985 to 68,598 in 1995. A recent report by the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit found that over 582,000 people were convicted or cautioned for cannabis use in England and Wales up to 1994. The report's estimate that 2.75 million people are regular cannabis users points to one of the largest outbreaks of civil disobedience the United Kingdom has ever known.
Many argue that these figures alone, which exclude "hard" drugs, should prompt the government to review the act. However, home secretary Jack Straw continues to reject a government inquiry, despite calls by backbench MPs and even England's most senior judge, Chief Justice Lord Bingham. Last week's appointment of former West Yorkshire chief constable Keith Hellawell as its first "drugs tsar" is further evidence that the government is not planning any change to the way it fights the war against drugs.
The task of reassessment has been left to the Police Foundation, an independent research body. Chairman Barrie Irving says the foundation realises that the issue is sensitive, but that "independent and objective review is long overdue". The 12-member committee will take oral and written testimony, examine research and experience from the UK and abroad, and commission expert assessment of fact and opinion.
Among the committee's academic contingent Alan Maynard, professor of economics at York University, believes Labour is playing the same game as the Tories by insisting that their policies are working, a stance he regards as "quite extraordinary". He says that trying to control drug supply without considering the demand shows the government "does not really understand how the market works - or it's pretending it doesn't".
He expects the inquiry to take two years and believes the government, in spite of its current stance, will take a close interest. "What it can do is perhaps change attitudes and social understanding so there is greater flexibility in policy-making and better policy-making, but that is going to be quite a challenge."
Other challenges will be to repair a defective evidence base on the nature and control of the drug market and to consider the costs and effects of possible reform. But Maynard notes: "The choice of policy is a political choice, so the role of an economist and the commission is to be very clear about the options and what their attributes are."
Maynard prefers reregulation to more radical approaches. "I find it difficult to believe that we can't have a better regulatory framework, and one that imposes fewer social costs on the community. The work of the committee will be an exploration of the extent to which you can change the regulations to be more `liberal' without creating greater social damage."
Another commission member, Geoffrey Pearson, Wates professor of social work at Goldsmiths College in London, was until recently a member of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. He doubts that any other area of public policy is as "untouchable" as drug law, a consequence of drugs becoming an emblem of a wider malaise, symbolic of "evil" and social instability.
Pearson says politicians who adopt a macho stance "completely misunderstand the issue ... (and) misrepresent and belittle the seriousness of the political psychology of this area". He refuses to speculate on the outcomes of the inquiry and concedes that he does not know whether change is needed or not, but believes reconsideration is overdue. "The drug scene has changed and been transformed in a whole series of different ways in relation to drug-related crime, in health risks... it's vastly altered since 1971."
Learning how the act works in practice is a priority identified by Bernard Williams, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and fellow in philosophy at All Souls College, Oxford. He suspects a "tremendous lack of fit" between what different groups in society say and do about drugs: "It's a high humbug area". He also points to the libertarian aspects of the debate.
Williams believes there is advantage in independent status. "If good arguments and rather striking facts are produced, I think that the report will stand on its own feet."
* 'WE ARE PERSECUTING INSTEAD OF HELPING OUR OWN CHILDREN'
James Humphreys is one of the thousands of people affected each year by the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Humphreys, a second-year biology and geology student at Manchester University, was last year sentenced to two-and-a-half years jail for "possession, with intent to supply" cannabis and ecstasy after police raided his shared house.
He was released in September after serving 15 months, and has strong opinions on the legislation that put him behind bars. "It's just a terrible mistake the way they are sending so many people to jail. It doesn't seem to stop people from dealing."
Although bitter about the police, Humphreys, 22, agrees with chief constables who question the amount of police time eaten up by minor drug offences.
He argues for the decriminalisation of some substances, including cannabis. "By fighting it you're creating a counter-reaction that's more dangerous than the drugs themselves."
However, he acknowledges that this would be a long, slow process, impossible unless the "illogical hysteria" that dominates the debate can be dispelled. His parents do not believe he should have been jailed for a first offence.
His father, Mick, wrote: "One million youngsters are still taking ecstasy each week and many more are enjoying marijuana ... The ugly truth (is) that we are persecuting instead of helping our own children."
In January Humphreys will start the second semester of his second year at Manchester. He thinks himself lucky to have emerged from jail having only picked up tips on car theft and murder, and not a heroin habit. "It doesn't seem to have damaged me too badly. Luckily I didn't lose it - some people do."