Cannabis Campaign: Can they read smoke signals?

The overwhelmingly successful 'IoS' conference last week put the drugs debate firmly into the public arena. The Government can no longer ignore the demand for a change in the law
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Twelve weeks ago, the decriminalisation of cannabis was forced on to the political agenda for the first time in 25 years by the Independent on Sunday's campaign. Since then, the issue has been debated by politicians, law enforcement agencies and the medical profession. And it has been taken up across the media - by the New Statesman and Melody Maker, and by the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror.

On Thursday, the debate took on a new urgency, as 15 MPs, doctors, drug care workers, police officers, evangelical Christians, committed cannabis users, and people suffering from multiple sclerosis attended the IoS conference on cannabis, held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, at the heart of Westminster, in front of an audience of 700.

Many delegates had travelled from Italy, the Netherlands, France and Belgium. And some had even crossed the Atlantic to take part in the most significant contribution to the overdue debate on cannabis law reform in Britain since the 1970s. But no one from the Government, which has maintained it is eager to debate the decriminalisation of cannabis, could find the time to cross Parliament Square.

Those MPs who did attend heard nine speakers, including Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, Conservative MP Nigel Evans and drug science expert Professor Lynn Zimmer address the conference and take questions from the floor.

The lively discussion, deftly chaired by Channel 4's Jon Snow, balanced platform speakers for and against the proposition, "Cannabis: Should It Be Decriminalised?"

Over the past three months the IoS campaign has helped put the issue of cannabis and the law into the realm of public debate. And despite the Government's cold feet, the message from the conference to the Home Secretary is that public opinion is moving in favour of change. But is the Government prepared to listen?

George Howarth, the junior Home Office minister in charge of the drugs brief, had been invited more than a month earlier. At that time his diary for Thursday's conference was clear. But last week his staff announced that he had "a prior engagement". Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, left it until Monday to explain that he, too, would be unable to attend.

But he did send a contradictory message to the conference, stating: "As you know, I am only too happy to debate [the decriminalisation of cannabis]." But he added that his opinion, and that of the Government, was well known. "We are against the legalisation of cannabis."

Keith Hellawell, the new drugs tsar, was another who has professed an interest in broad debate and consultation with the public, but he ducked the conference on the grounds that his new job does not officially begin until 5 January. His deputy, Mike Trace, who has started work, was also invited but failed to turn up along with any senior representative from the Metropolitan Police and at least 12 provincial constabularies which were invited weeks earlier. Mr Hellawell and Mr Trace were not required to address the conference, having been offered observer status.

The attempted boycott by those charged with administering the current drug policy must cast a shadow of doubt over their claims that they are seriously committed to a policy of public consultation and debate on drugs law reform issues.

However, the absence of Home Office spokesmen and senior serving officers did not prevent others from continuing to argue for a continuation of the ban.

The Conservative MP Nigel Evans, the opposition front-bench spokesman for constitutional matters and former chairman of an all-party drugs abuse committee, offered a stout defence of the status quo.

He argued that if laws banning cannabis were relaxed there would be a rapid increase in use and in subsequent addiction. "There is no evidence to suggest that smoking cannabis is harm-free," said the MP for Ribble Valley. "You only have to go down to Dover to see what happens when tax restrictions are eased through duty-free allowances. Beer and tobacco is flooding in and I have no doubt the same would apply to cannabis," he said.

Also keen to assert the case for continuing the legal ban on cannabis was David Partington, who stands on the religious right. Mr Partington, chairman of the Evangelical Coalition on Drugs, told the conference that decriminalising cannabis would amount to "giving a government green light to intoxication". Mr Partington drew on his experience of working with drink and drug addicts in London. "If society decides to decriminalise, it will write its own death warrant," he said. "More people using it will mean more people addicted, and addicted people descend into a life of despair, and those around them suffer also."

A delegate from the George Soros-backed drug research group, the Lindesmith Centre in New York, took a more positive view. "I see the IoS conference as a model for future debates in other countries," said Tyler Trippet. "It is probable that we would find it difficult to organise anything like this in the US. However, it would be a good idea to copy this in places where the issue of relaxing the laws is about to percolate to the surface."

The most passionate platform address came from the Italian MEP Gianfranco Dell 'Alba, who invited all groups represented at the conference to affiliate to a new group working for drugs law harmonisation across the EU. "This could be the first signs of the light at the end of the dark tunnel for drug reform in Europe," he told delegates, before leaving to fly back to his own conference that afternoon in Brussels.

Professor John Morgan, the American co-author of the book Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, speaking after the conference, said: "I thought it was a marvellous presentation. I even enjoyed listening to the Christian opponents of decriminalisation and I found it interesting that they resorted to spurious claims that cannabis causes bodily harm. If they read my book perhaps we could get down to a proper exchange of views based on rationality rather than emotion and myth."

Professor Zimmer, from the Lindesmith Centre, said: "The encouraging part is that the voices of reform are everywhere and seem to be growing. In Britain the IoS policy of providing a forum for discussion should make it clear that opposition to the law is not going to go away. "For any law to function, there must be a consensus of support, even criminals in jail will, if questioned, agree that it should be against the law to steal. That clearly is not the case with cannabis users, or with the laws in the UK and most of the rest of the developed world."