Were we out of our minds? No, but then came skunk

Thousands joined Rosie Boycott to march for the legalisation of cannabis. But the times, and the cannabis, were different then

When Rosie Boycott, the then editor of
The Independent on Sunday, launched her campaign for the decriminalisation of cannabis in 1997, the decision caused a furore.

At the start of the campaign, Ms Boycott wrote: "Certainly, no one has ever been disfigured by a joint. The truth is that most people I know have smoked at some time or other in their lives. They hold down jobs, bring up their families, run major companies, govern our country, and yet... cannabis is still officially regarded as a dangerous drug."

Just a few months later, on Saturday 28 March 1998, thousands of supporters gathered in Hyde Park. Ms Boycott was pictured pushing a wheelchair-bound MS sufferer who used the drug to ease the symptoms of his condition. The campaign had secured the support of celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney, Martin Amis, Harold Pinter, Nick Hornby, Peter Gabriel and Anita Roddick. They were joined by scientists, lawyers, academics, doctors and artists.

The following year the British Medical Association and the House of Lords Scientific Committee both agreed that cannabis had medical properties, and in 2004, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett effectively relaxed the laws over cannabis by reclassifying it as a class C drug.

When the IoS launched its campaign, the main focus of concern was over drugs such as ecstasy. Although there had been those who had started voicing concerns over cannabis use, a lack of scientific research meant that the dangers went largely unheeded.

But with the growing number of studies being published linking skunk cannabis to disorders such as psychosis and schizophrenia, the debate has moved on. Although the actual numbers of people taking cannabis seem to have levelled off, that still means more than 1.5 million Britons have used the drug.

However, concern is increasing among experts about the mental health risks, particularly in the case of teenage users who are smoking home-grown skunk that they say has about as much relation to the cannabis of years gone by as shandy does to brandy. As we report on our front page, more than 10,000 teenagers needed treatment for cannabis addiction last year.

In 2001, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs had already concluded that there could be a link between cannabis use and the onset of psychotic illnesses. Although conclusive evidence does not exist, several studies have suggested that there may be a further association between smoking cannabis in adolescence and mental illness in later life.

Some of the most prominent supporters of the campaign are now reassessing their stance. Professor Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council, said: "Yes it is certainly true that there is more evidence of the link between heavy cannabis use and cases of psychosis in certain vulnerable individuals, particularly younger people, than there was 10 years ago. I am not sure that the legalisation of one iconic drug like cannabis is necessarily the way forward. We should instead focus our attention on overhauling the whole classification system.

"The link between cannabis and psychosis is quite clear now; it wasn't 10 years ago. When discussing drugs you have to have special concern for young people."

Paul Flynn MP, another of the original supporters of the campaign, said: "My view is exactly the same. Prohibition doesn't work. It's much worse to have the market controlled by dangerous criminals than for it to be properly controlled."

Others are not so sure. Professor Nick Heather of Northumbria University said: "I would not have the confidence to join a campaign such as that now."

Some, such as Carmen Calill, author and founder of Virago Press, are now opposed to legalisation. "I wish people wouldn't do it, but I don't want to stop them. I do want to stop politicians having anything to do with it, though, so on balance I am now against its legalisation," she said.

But Caroline Coon, artist and founder of Release, said: "The prohibition of drugs like marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice. Precisely because drugs can be dangerous, they should be licensed and controlled and brought within the law."

The drug receptors

Cannabinoids act on a specific protein receptor in the brain, interfering with concentration, memory and pain perception

The pleasure zone

Tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), the active constituent of cannabis. THCs can pass across the biological barrier that separates the brain from the bloodstream, and in doing so penetrate the central nervous system. Here, they act on the natural proteins or receptors that control nerve impulses passed from one part of the brain to another

The body map

Brain: short-term memory loss; increased risk of psychosis or schizophrenia

Lungs: increased risk of lung cancer

Heart: raised pulse rate puts pressure on heart

Liver: lower blood pressure can affect internal organs

What we said then - and what we know now

Today, The Independent on Sunday calls for the personal use of cannabis to be decriminalised. The paper's campaign will continue until the law is changed and possession of marijuana for personal use is no longer an offence

'IoS' leader 1997

The time has come to reverse one of the positions with which this newspaper was identified. The more the facts can be driven home about the differences between old-style hash and modern skunk, and the risks to mental health, the better

'IoS' leader Today

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones