Leader: Radical drugs reform holds risks all of its own

After decades of crackdowns, drives and strategies, it is increasingly clear that the "war on drugs" is failing. This is as true at the global level as it is on Scotland's streets - whether in council schemes in Glasgow or the quiet terraces of Edinburgh's New Town. Successive campaigns have failed to halt either the growth of a globalised and sophisticated industry, or our prisons being filled with drug users at heavy cost to police resources and taxpayer funds.

Yesterday the Global Commission on Drugs Policy, whose members include the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, warned that major reforms were needed "urgently" and that "policies need to change now". Its message is powerful and compelling, whatever view we may have of the expertise of 30 celebrities mustered to lend support. There is certainly now a strong case for a critical review of the effectiveness of current policy. The fact that almost 80,000 people were cautioned or convicted in Britain in the past year alone for drug possession shows that attempts to close down supply aren't effective.

A policy of decriminalisation offers not just the prospect of disempowering the drug gangs. It also makes possible a switch of approach and resources towards rehabilitation rather than incarceration in prisons, where drugs are readily available through an even more vicious and violent gangland system.

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But such a review needs also to set out how an alternative drug licensing, regulation and distribution regime might work. Decriminal- isation is not at all the same as free-for-all. It would not be acceptable as such, given the way that drugs have blighted the lives of thousands of users and their families. How would a system of controlled access work? How would it be policed? And what assurances could be given that our streets and cities would be safer, knowing the deep psychological harm that mind-altering drugs can inflict?

No liberal state can blithely stand by and allow the free destruction of its young. As if alcohol, by far Scotland's biggest social problem, is not enough, we would need to be sure that drug decriminalisation did not light the way to a human decimation in every way as severe.

Britain's drug culture has spread in the space of a generation from a dangerous pastime of pop stars, literary eccentrics and a bohemian elite to a nationwide industry with suppliers in every community across the country, feeding the naive curiosity of the young and the debilitating addiction of tens of thousands alike. That an alternative strategy is necessary seems to be beyond argument, but we need to know how it might work. A legalised system of distribution will bring security and protection problems all of their own and more attention has to be paid to genuine rehab- ilitation.

There is a world of difference between being drug-free and a life of sorts dependent on the dulling daily drip-feed of methadone.