THE Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is refusing to allow doctors to prescribe cannabis to their patients because he fears that it could be as dangerous as Thalidomide, writes Graham Ball.

Thalidomide was a medicinal drug given to pregnant women in the 1960s as a remedy for morning sickness and nausea but was later found to be the agent responsible for widespread defects and abnormalities in babies. Mr Straw made this remarkable comparison in a televised confrontation with the satirist, Mark Thomas, which was broadcast on Channel 4 last Wednesday.

The Home Secretary said: "It does not follow that because there are no deaths from a drug, it is therefore not harmful. There was a drug which was quite good for its original purpose in the 1960s, called Thalidomide but it turned out to have terrible side-effects. It is said that the continual use of cannabis can cause personality disorder and many other serious side effects."

The programme makers had surprised Mr Straw by arriving at his constituency surgery at the Ivy Road Community Centre in Blackburn with three men who confessed to using cannabis for medical reasons.

"You could see he looked worried when we turned up but I told him we wanted a serious discussion and after about an hour, when he had seen all of his other constituents, he decided to go for it," said Thomas, a new-wave satirist who has established a reputation for what he calls direct comedy action.

The interview was calm and cordial until Thomas challenged Mr Straw to say whether or not he was happy that people who were sick risked arrest and criminal conviction for taking a substance that relieved their symptoms. "If any of these men were now to produce cannabis in this office they would be arrested. Are you happy with that?" he said.

At this point Hamish Crisp, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, produced a hand-rolled cigarette and lit it within a few feet of the Home Secretary.

Mr Straw became agitated and stood up to indicate that the interview was over.

"It is not a question of happiness, it is whether or not we should obey the law, which we all should. I thought this was to be a serious discussion not some sort of stunt."

A few seconds later a uniformed police officer entered the room and officially cautioned 43-year-old Mr Crisp. "I have been led to believe that cannabis has been smoked," said the officer somewhat apologetically. "Unfortunately cannabis is illegal and we must obey the letter of the law,".

Mr Crisp was then searched butcannabis was not found on him. The Home Secretary had mistaken the hand- rolled cigarette for a cannabis joint. Afterwards a defiant Mr Crisp, who uses crutches to walk, said: "I did it deliberately to see how he reacted under pressure. I was not very impressed.

"Jack Straw was absurd when he compared cannabis to Thalidomide. People have been using cannabis all over the world for thousands of years without serious side-effects."

Geoff Atkinson, the producer of The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, asked Channel 4 to extend the programme to include more of the interview with the Home Secretary.

"We had no intention of getting involved with the police but I believe that if people had been able to see more of the scenes where police made a crippled man get on to his feet so they could search him it would have made a very telling point about how absurd our current laws are. It was humiliating," he said.

The Independent on Sunday has seen the full, un-cut interview in which the Home Secretary challenges the newspaper, among others, to prove to him that cannabis is harmless.

"It is open to any group like the Independent on Sunday to put money into research to show that there really is a therapeutic medicinal use for cannabis and that the side-effects are not such as to require it to be generally banned. The ball is in the court of the people who make these claims for it," he said.

Mr Straw said that only when he was presented with overwhelming evidence would he be prepared to go to the House of Commons to change the current law.

Letters

AS the son of a former Home Secretary, I couldn't help but sympathise with William Straw after his entrapment by the Mirror. I was glad that he did not suffer the usual fate of those who admit to the police they supplied drugs.

Do we still need to make the millions of occasional users endure breaking and entering, and false imprisonment? By making possession an offence we make so many otherwise law-abiding citizens into outlaws. We should also remember that it was prohibition that made the Mafia strong and realise that this new prohibition is nurturing animals whose organisations make the Mafia look like Mensa.

Will Maudling, London

AT A recent meeting we voted unanimously in favour of decriminalising cannabis. The assumption that cannabis users inevitably turn to harder drugs is ridiculous. We can reduce the number who do by decriminalising cannabis, thereby keeping ordinary users away from the criminal drugs world. If the sale of cannabis were to be regulated, Liberal Democrats would tax it and channel the extra revenue into under-funded health and education services.

Matt Davies,

Durham University Liberal Democrat Youth and Students

IT IS time for the Government to take a good look at its drugs policy. I find it hard to believe that all MPs think that drugs should continue to be illegal. At the moment it seems thatour government is simply based on reaction.

Alastair C Irvine

WILLIAM Straw's father has been duplicitous. William Straw supplied a class B drug for profit in a pub when he was under 18. The important issues were not freedom of the press and rights of privacy, but Jack Straw duping the press with the spin induced by these frothy issues. This enables him to carry on persecuting people who use cannabis for their own pleasure.

Commander (retd) Mick Humphreys Somerset

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