Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by Francis Wilkinson

  1.  I spent 30 years as a police officer and retired as Chief Constable of Gwent in 1999. I am a Patron of Transform, the drugs legislation campaigning organisation. Last year I wrote The Leaf and the Law (published by The Centre for Reform) which made a case for the legalisation of cannabis and proposed a regime for it.

  2.  In relation to the question of how the Government's policy should be judged I endorse the separate submission of Transform. The following submission deals with the practicalities of law reform and assumes that the case is made for some closer and more effective regulation of the drugs trade (often called "legalisation").


  3.  The UK is signatory to the three UN Conventions on drugs. The 1961 Single Convention deals particularly with heroin, cocaine and cannabis and requires states to prohibit their use for other than medical and scientific purposes. The 1988 Convention adds the specific requirement that criminal penalties must be attached to the laws prohibiting the possession of these drugs.

  4.  This is a major constraint on reform and leaves the UK with four options for change:

    —  extend medical use;

    —  adopt a regime in which the laws remain on the statute book but are not enforced;

    —  adopt a regime in which possession and other minor drug offences are reduced to the level of administrative offences, while supply remains a criminal offence; and

    —  work to get the UN Conventions changed to permit more thorough going legislation.

  This assumes that it is not an acceptable option—though legally possible—to withdraw unilaterally from the Conventions, because the drugs trade is international (estimated at 8 per cent of international trade).

  5.  The options are considered in turn.


  6.  The Government has sponsored trials of cannabis with a view to authorising its use for medical purposes. The Conventions allow medical use and would thereby also allow a freer supply of heroin than the current regime. Until the 1970s the "Old British System" supplied heroin on prescription to users on the basis that it was a medical necessity. There is scope within the Conventions to supply any drug to those who have such a need. It is argued that a heroin (rather than a methadone) supply regime would reduce the heroin black market and the enormous profits of the violent gangs which operate it. NCIS estimates (August 2001) the heroin and cocaine trade in the UK to be worth £500 million.

  7.  Here is the one area where the law in the UK can be beneficially changed within the UN Conventions. I recommend that heroin prescribing regimes, including the possibility of pharmacist authorised supply, be examined as a matter or urgency. I have constantly in mind the numbers of murders in the gang-controlled drug trade caused by the present supply regime. After rising during alcohol prohibition in the USA between 1920 and 1933, murders in the USA fell in each of the 11 years following its repeal. A substantial proportion of the rising number of murders in the UK results from the drugs trade being in the hands of organised crime.


  8.  This is the Dutch option. The well-known system of cannabis cafes in the Netherlands operates contrary to their law which has remained unchanged. The Dutch use discretion not to prosecute either the cafes or their customers.

  9.  This leaves the cafes to buy their supplies from organised crime. More than half Dutch prison inmates are there for drug-related crime. The illegal import, cultivation and export of cannabis thrive in the Netherlands as elsewhere, as does the crime associated with the drugs trade.

  10.  The disadvantages of this approach are:

    —  it pays only lip service to the UN Conventions;

    —  it does nothing to reduce the evils of a drug trade controlled by criminal gangs;

    —  it is unethical: implying that consuming and retailing cannabis is acceptable, while wholesaling and importing is wrong. The former cannot exist without the latter. The fact that this is an ethically untenable position can only bring the law and policy into disrepute;

    —  the educational consequences of such confusion are negative: it will not discourage drug-taking; and

    —  such double-think can only encourage corruption: law enforcement agencies are left to decide in a moral vacuum what is and what is not to be prosecuted, where there is no victim to complain and where there is a great deal of cash.

  In addition it would, I submit, be contrary to the UK rule of law to regulate one part of a supply chain while criminalising another part. It is not logical, practical or ethical.

  11.  The Dutch system has the advantages that it decriminalises the user of cannabis (a harmless member of society using a rather safe and mild drug) and that it is within the UN Convention. I suggest that these advantages are not sufficient to outweigh the problems in the previous paragraph.


  12.  This is the Police Foundation approach. Their Inquiry Report Drugs and the Law proposes what the Chairman of the Inquiry describes as depenalisation of cannabis possession and of cultivation for personal use. The proposal is in two parts: that the offences should remain but cease to carry sentences of imprisonment, and that they only be prosecuted in exceptional circumstances. The second part resembles the Dutch arrangements.

  13.  There are two oddities about the proposal. The first is the recommendation of the inquiry that cannabis be moved from Class "B" under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to Class "C". Class "C" drugs carry a maximum two year prison sentence for possession, and five years for supplying. The Inquiry Report proposes no imprisonment for possession and seven years for supplying. That would put cannabis in a class of its own.

  14.  The second oddity is more substantial. The proposal would mean that a purchaser of cannabis would, on obtaining possession, be liable to prosecution (however rarely used) for an offence roughly equivalent to a minor traffic offence in terms of the punishment available to the court. The seller, on the other hand, would commit a serious offence triable only in the Crown Court. Nowhere else in the criminal law is there a transaction where liability is so lopsided. Like the Dutch system it would mean that the supply business would remain in the hands of criminal gangs, with all the other disadvantages mentioned at paragraph 10 above. It would also leave the possibility of purchasers being prosecuted for aiding and abetting supply, carrying seven years imprisonment.

  15.  For these reasons and those which also apply to the Dutch system, I would oppose these proposals.


  16.  It follows, I believe, that no change should be made to the UK laws on the non-medical supply of prohibited drugs until the UN Conventions have been amended. As the case for change demands urgent action it is disappointing that improvement will be thereby delayed.

  17.  There are however consolations to be found:

    —  the drugs trade is largely international, and it would be unacceptable for suppliers to be committing serious criminal offences up to the point of entry to British territory and then become legitimate;

    —  most other European countries have adapted the Convention requirements locally to avoid penalising possession, and would be likely to support amendments; and

    —  compliance with the Conventions is subject to the principles of a state's own laws. In Europe that generally includes the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Many Europeans, and some states, believe that criminalising personal possession infringes the right to private life under Article 8 of the ECHR. Removing the UN Convention requirement for each state to have such a law would remove this problem.


  18.  Accordingly, I submit to the Committee that:

    (a)  a developed heroin prescribing regime is required; and

    (b)  work should be done on a replacement UN Convention which would permit recreational drugs to be cultivated, supplied and possessed subject to appropriate regimes in each country.

September 2001

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