Pot, politics and prejudice

For 70 years cannabis has been demonised, with disastrous results
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Labour would like to decriminalise cannabis for personal use but does not dare. That was the message from senior ministers in private at the party's conference last week.

Despite the very public scornful opposition from the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, in his main platform speech, behind the scenes senior members of his party applauded the Independent on Sunday campaign. One very senior minister spoke of the need to overcome the "prejudice of the British people". He, personally, had no objection but he was fearful of the reaction from middle England. Another said she was sure decriminalisation would come. Still another indicated that if the police came out in favour of relaxation, then Mr Straw might bend.

Not for the first time, on cannabis, ministers are saying one thing in public and something quite different in private.

Until 1928 and the Dangerous Drugs Act, cannabis could be freely bought in Britain. But in that year it was linked with the harmful heroin and opium, and outlawed.

Cannabis did not become an issue until 1967 when the "summer of love" saw the first demonstration in support of legalisation. Then, as now, Labour was in power. And then, as now, a Labour home secretary tried to sweep the issue under the carpet.

In response to public concern about the way the drugs laws were operating, Harold Wilson set up an inquiry under Baroness Wootton. Her report recommended the creation of clear legal distinctions between cannabis and dangerous drugs. The committee felt that long-term consumption of cannabis in moderate amounts had no harmful effects. However, James Callaghan, then Home Secretary, distanced himself from the report's findings.

Drugs law reform faded from the political arena and did not return until 1971, when the Conservative Heath government, in a sweeping crackdown, updated the Misuse of Drugs Act. Cannabis was bracketed as a Class B drug, along with amphetamine and barbiturate, and penalties for its possession were increased.

Apart from an amendment in 1985, that 26-year-old law remains the main weapon for combating Britain's escalating drugs trade. Last week Mr Straw peddled rhetoric that has changed little down the years, that decriminalisation would increase drugs use and make the drugs barons richer.

But that is to miss the point, that is to fail to distinguish cannabis, a non-harmful, non-addictive drug, from the dangerously addictive other banned substances such as heroin and cocaine. At about the same time that Britain lumped all drugs together, the Dutch were embarking on a more enlightened path. Their legislation drew a distinction between "soft" and "hard" drugs. Soft drugs such as cannabis were decriminalised, hard drugs such as heroin were not.

In Holland, licensed "Coffee Houses" serve cannabis but no alcohol to customers over 16. Each Coffee House is regulated and inspected by the local town council. No advertising other than at point of sale is allowed, and cannabis is offered in edible form, in cakes, as well as for smoking.

A recent Dutch government report says: "Evidence of the success of the separation of the markets is to be found in the fact that only a very few of the young people in the Netherlands who use soft drugs take to using hard drugs. The decriminalisation of the possession of soft drugs has not led to a rise in their use." Dutch government officials also point out that as a result of controlled drug use, in their country potentially lethal solvent abuse and glue sniffing among teenagers are virtually unheard of.

Here the Home Office attitude is that cannabis is a "gateway" drug, a first step on the deadly path to hard drug addiction. Reformers argue the reverse. In Holland hard drug use actually fell after the decriminalisation of cannabis and no causal link has ever been established between the two.

Drug law reform was not an issue at the last general election. Only the Liberal Democrats have argued the need for a fresh approach: their spokesman Alex Carlile QC said earlier this year that his party was pledged to a royal commission on the misuse of drugs.

Under the Thatcher and Major governments the policy, exemplified by Michael Howard, the last Tory home secretary, was "tough on crime, tough on drugs".

In 26 years more than 500,000 UK citizens have been convicted of cannabis possession and acquired criminal records or cautions. Labour's current prescription is more of the same: lumping people who use cannabis together with those who use heroin. The results are disastrous. Often the same people who sell cannabis also sell heroin.

The leading medical journal, the Lancet, wrote in an editorial: "Cannabis has become a political football and one that governments continually duck. Like footballs, however, it bounces back. Sooner or later, politicians will have to stop running scared and address the evidence: cannabis per se is not a hazard to society but driving it further underground may well be."