Smoking out the hypocrites

I spent an extremely relaxed Sunday with a prominent MEP, sharing a couple of joints of skunk
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE 87 British MEPs, just 15 of them Conservative, and they all seem united in their lack of sympathy with Tom Spencer's fall. His crimes, the law enforcers have made it abundantly clear, do not amount to very much in their book - a pounds 550 spot fine and no further questions asked. The politicians, however, take a sterner view and need nothing less than the ruin of a solid and useful political career.

It's an emerging pattern. The law no longer feels it useful to mete out serious punishment on some matters - particularly for crimes involving personal drug use - but employers take up the gauntlet instead, not just in high-profile cases such as this one, but routinely as workplace drug- testing becomes ever more prevalent. Why is it that employers can be judge and jury, while judges and juries are not considered to be necessary in resolving these matters? Surely there is something intrinsically unfair and undemocratic in the trend towards civil punishment.

I for one find Tom Spencer's blanket civil punishment for a ragbag of crimes and misdemeanours confusing, especially when no guidelines beyond media speculation are given as to what the sacking offence was. Everyone's agreed that it's not because he's gay, while the legal action taken against him suggests that he's not considered to be a criminal, because he has not been charged. Even the gay videos seem to have been not porn as such but a memento from a lover who had been sanctioned by his wife.

It must surely be the gram and a half of cocaine that he told customs he was also carrying which made his position untenable, but I think it's important that this should be precisely and publicly stated. We can't carry on lumping class A and class B drugs in together as equally heinous, because it's no longer making any sense at all, to either adults or children.

I'd certainly welcome some clarity on the matter, because there's one thing I know for sure. Tom Spencer isn't the only MEP who has ever inhaled cannabis. Last summer I spent an extremely pleasant and notably relaxed Sunday afternoon with a prominent MEP, with whom the assembled company shared a couple of joints of skunk weed.

He didn't appear to be a habitual user, nor did he seem to be an ingenu. Although he of course knew that smoking dope was illegal, his actions suggested that he was not remotely in agreement with the law on this matter (despite the fact that his publicly stated views on drugs have suggested a different view).

Maybe he's forgotten the entire incident, for the drug did have a minor detrimental effect on his short-term memory. He telephoned us later in the day and explained jovially that after leaving the party he had treated himself to a post-prandial nap. Falling asleep to the sound of Radio 4 paying tribute to William Burroughs, who had died the previous evening, he awoke to hear some biographical details about Samuel Taylor Coleridge drifting from the radio.

"Goodness," he thought. "This is a heavy weekend for druggie writers! They're dropping like flies!" A few moments later, he recalled that in fact Coleridge had been lost to the world some time before that weekend, and put his temporary lapse down to the heady substance he'd partaken of after lunch. His call to share this with us confirmed that he clearly considered the whole experience to have been an amusing adventure and nothing more.

Now his memory appears to have failed him again, because he feels no need to stand up and be counted alongside Tom Spencer as a cannabis dabbler. Certainly, Spencer has broken the law in using cannabis, but this gentleman has too. I have no wish to name Pothead MEP number two, because, along with his penchant for a little blow, he has another thing in common with Tom Spencer. He is a good and diligent member of the European Parliament, committed both to Europe and to his British voters.

We certainly can't afford to lose people of his calibre over a crime such as this one, any more than we can afford to lose Tom Spencer. Anyway, such a cull, if embarked on, would be massive. A fifth of new MPs who joined the Commons after the last election admit to having taken cannabis; Clare Short got herself into hot water for hinting that some of her ministerial colleagues had taken cannabis, and even MPs who themselves have never taken cannabis can be no more certain than Jack Straw that they speak for their nearest and dearest, too.

This is the central reason why the Government's enthusiasm for zero tolerance for even class B drugs is ill-advised and, in broader terms, is why the law and and the police appear unwilling to enforce such a policy. Schools too, have sensibly declared themselves unwilling to exclude pupils who are caught with cannabis. And even the drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell, seems reluctant fully to embrace the mantra of his masters, as he advises that employees failing drug tests should be offered help and not their P45s. Unappointed guardians of the nation's moral welfare would be best advised not to apply zero tolerance to cannabis, either. In a recent survey 53 per cent of the population admitted to having tried it. They can't all be forced to resign from their jobs.

And we can't operate sensibly as a society with a degree of hypocrisy as huge as this and so very plain to see. Just as I have to square the decent, intelligent MEP with a fat joint in his hand with the man who won't lift those same fingers to defend his fellow Europhile, children up and down the country have to square information demonising dope smokers with glimpses of their upstanding and otherwise law-abiding parents doing odd things to cigarettes after they're supposed to be in bed.

I'm reminded of my dope-smoking friend who was asked whether she'd be taking her children on the legalise cannabis march organised by this paper's sister, The Independent on Sunday, under the editorship of Rosie "Rizla" Boycott. "God, no," she guffawed. "They'd be absolutely furious if they found out that that stuff their mother smokes was actually an illegal substance!"

Like her, I don't particularly want to rock the boat. I don't think cannabis should be legalised immediately, but I do think that general attitudes to drugs, and particularly drugs education in schools, should fully reflect the tolerant attitudes displayed by the legal profession and the police towards cannabis offences.

I don't even reject links between cannabis and harder drugs. As heavy drinkers are more likely to smoke, smokers are more likely to be cannabis users, and cannabis users are more likely to use hard drugs. We have as much chance of changing this pattern as we have of achieving prohibition of alcohol.

Legality and illegality has little to do with it, beyond the fact that pushing people into the black market to obtain something as ubiquitous as cannabis may not be helpful in breaking the soft drugs-to- hard drugs chain.

But I do think that we have to be absolutely honest if we are to bring up our children to understand the true dangers of drugs. Children don't like being lied to, and the use of cannabis is too widespread for them to know only what they are told about it at school.

They ought to be told what the New Scientist has told us: alcohol use is more damaging than cannabis use. Then they'll have far more reason to believe their teachers when they are told about the very real dangers of far more dangerous drugs. All the withdrawal of Tom Spencer from public life has taught them is that we're as unsure about what's right, what's wrong and what's tolerable as they are. It's not much of a message.

Edward McMillan-Scott, who led the delegation of Tory MEPs asking for Spencer's resignation, should now give a clear and unequivocal statement explaining just exactly why it was that his colleague had to go, and which of his crimes, if committed by other elected representatives, would lead inexorably to their own resignation.