A Cabinet minister has declared for the first time that Britain is “plainly” losing the war on drugs.By Martin Beckford, Home Affairs Editor
Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, admitted little progress had been made over the past 30 years and that the authorities may even be “going backwards”.
He told MPs that drugs are the biggest cause of crime in the country and a major social problem.
But the veteran Conservative MP, who served as Home Secretary and Health Secretary in previous administrations, said he opposed the decriminalisation of illegal substances in case it encourages young people to experiment.
It is the first time that a serving Cabinet member has so publicly called into question progress in the war on drugs, although in opposition David Cameron criticised tough talk by politicians and once said that “drugs policy has been failing for decades”.
His comments come after Sir Richard Branson claimed that “billions of dollars” has been wasted in fighting drug use and said that decriminalisation would allow police and health services to tackle dealers and help victims. Last year prominent public figures including former heads of MI5 and the Crown Prosecution Service called for the war on drugs to be abandoned.
And the Government’s leading adviser, Prof Les Iversen, has said that young people caught in possession of banned substances such as cannabis should be spared criminal prosecution to prevent their futures being blighted.
Mr Clarke told the Home Affairs Select Committee, which is carrying out the first parliamentary investigation into drugs for almost a decade: “I have not reached the stage of that blinding insight about exactly how we are going to improve our record, is the honest truth.
“We have been engaged in a war against drugs for 30 years. We’re plainly losing it. We have not achieved very much progress. The same problems come round and round.
“But I do not despair – we keep trying every method we can to get on top of what’s one of the worst social problems for the country and the biggest single cause of crime.
“I have frankly conceded that policy has not been working. We are all disappointed by the fact that far from making progress it could be argued we are going backwards at times.”
However he added: “The Government has no intention whatever of changing the criminal law on drugs.
“My own purely personal view is that I would be worried about losing the deterrent effect of criminalisation of youngsters who start experimenting.
“The really key thing is to try to work out how to get fewer young people to start experimenting with drugs.
“One thing that does put them off is that they would get into trouble with the police.”
His comments on the failing war on drugs were welcomed by Prof David Nutt, the former chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs who was sacked after accusing ministers of “devaluing” scientific evidence on cannabis.
He said it was the first time he had heard a minister make such a remark and added: “I’m pleased that anyone in authority has pointed out that this war is ill-conceived. Certainly the evidence has shown that it may actually be making things worse.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Confronting the enormous harm caused by drugs is a difficult and global problem. As the Justice Secretary said, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past which is why all branches of government are now working together to tackle this threat at every level. This means challenging and supporting individuals to free themselves from drug dependency, tough punishments for dealers and better international cooperation against organised criminal gangs.”
Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said afterwards: “I was very surprised to hear the comments from the Justice Secretary that he regarded the war on drugs as lost. This has important implications on the way in which the Government is trying to deal with this complicated issue.
“The Committee will continue its search to find a strategy that is based on both prevention of use and the prosecution of those who deal. As we heard during our visit to Columbia this can only be done through an international and national approach.”