The Tory and the toke: Cannabis campaign

The Conservative MP for North Norfolk has enjoyed a joint or two in his time - and wonders why the practice is still illegal
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I ASSOCIATE my experience with drugs (soft ones) not with Mick Jagger or Aldous Huxley but with passing my law degree and working in a bank. You can wear a pin-stripe suit, be utterly conventional, and still roll a joint. And Yes, I did inhale. But that was a long time ago. I stopped sometime in my late 20s and took up alcohol instead.

It has always seemed rather odd to me that you can have an abortion virtually on demand (and that does raise a moral issue); smoke as many cigarettes a day as you like, knowing that they will probably kill you slowly; get drunk regularly and also kill yourself slowly, and possibly others in a car accident; have heterosexual sex and no doubt soon homosexual sex with anyone over the age of 16; but you can't smoke a joint.

This is not just odd. It is also hypocritical and dishonest. It is interesting to note that in 1993 52 per cent of drug offenders were cautioned by the police, while only 5 per cent were cautioned in 1983. It would seem a certain amount of de facto decriminalisation has already taken place. The present law is clearly no longer being consistently enforced and is widely ignored, reflecting a typically British dislike of hypocrisy, dishonesty and humbug.

So why the taboo? Why is intelligent discussion about the subject off limits? I suspect it is the connection in people's minds between soft drugs and hard drugs, especially heroin and crack. You picture your daughter as a wretched junkie, clutching a dirty syringe, exploited by a violent, criminal pusher. End of discussion.

I don't believe, however, that the connection is a valid one. In my own experience, soft drugs did not lead to hard drugs. But it is true that the same criminal dealer will supply both - he is the connection. The dealer starts supplying you with cannabis, and gradually leads you on to something worse, something more addictive. His livelihood depends upon your addiction.

At the moment, drugs are controlled by criminals. That should frighten every parent in Britain at least as much as the drugs themselves. Poor little five-year-old Dillon Hull didn't die from taking drugs - he was shot because his step-father sold drugs and was caught up in the criminal culture that surrounds them.

So if your daughter or granddaughter is on drugs of any kind, you are right to be worried because not only is she a criminal but she may well be meeting a very clever, rich, violent and persuasive dealer with a huge interest in securing her addiction. And, there is no quality control in this unregulated market. No guarantee that what she buys won't be impure or adulterated, and what she uses won't be consumed by insanitary methods.

The crime surrounding drugs should not be underestimated. Worldwide, the illicit drugs trade generates revenues estimated at some pounds 240bn and has some 400 million users. Its tentacles stretch even into a place like rural north Norfolk where well over half of all property-related crime is drug related. Overall, the Home Office estimates that pounds 2bn worth of property is stolen annually by drug-users.

The drugs trade would appear to be out of control and beyond the powers even of a super power like the US. This is despite the appointment of a Drugs Czar and a crackdown on drugs which has resulted in over 60 per cent of federal prison inmates being inside for violating drugs laws. Illegal drugs criminalise neighbourhoods, corrupt criminal justice systems and some Third World governments, infect many schools and finance gangsterism and organised crime. It is similar but worse than Prohibition - because the stakes are higher and the trade is global.

And the hidden costs are enormous. The police, Customs and Excise and the court systems are overwhelmed by the consequences of illegal drugs. Would it not be better to channel some of these resources into rehabilitation and education about drugs?

I am not part of any campaign to legalise or even decriminalise drugs, be they hard or soft. I don't know the arguments well enough to come to a firm decision, especially those relating to the effect of drugs on physical and mental health. I suspect that the decriminalisation of cannabis would not materially increase consumption, and my gut feeling is that the gains from bringing it within the control of the law might well outweigh the disadvantages. Certainly, there is evidence from Holland and parts of the US to support that view.

My judgement would be a pragmatic one; it would not be philosophical or moral. The shifting sands between John Stuart Mill and those who see the state as the protector and arbiter of morality provide for an interesting debate but no clear answer. My view would be based on what is best, not what is right in some abstract libertarian sense. It would accept the reality that drugs are with us for keeps and we can't wish them away.

We should not underestimate the problems posed by drugs for a democracy like ours. An authoritarian approach such as that imposed by the old Soviet Union or some Middle Eastern countries is not available to us. Nor is a libertarian approach legalising all drugs and accepting a likely rise in heroin addiction going to be easily acceptable to the public. But we can at least have an open debate and bring an end to a taboo that has so clearly failed. Closing our eyes in the hope that an evil will go away is really not good enough. That is why I am in favour of a royal commission to look at all the issues in a detached, informed and objective way.

THE MARCH

THERE HAS been a surge of support for the Independent on Sunday Decriminalise Cannabis Campaign march. A delegation from the European Parliament, together with 200 supporters, has pledged to join the march, which starts in Hyde Park at midday on Saturday 28 March and finishes with a rally at Hyde Park.

Another group of Italian activists, from the Transnational Radical Party, is negotiating to charter a special flight from Rome and further delegation, from the Progressive Party in Holland, has promised to attend.

The response from closer to home has been just as encouraging, with coach parties organised from as far afield as Liverpool, Hull, Manchester, the West Country, South Wales and East Anglia. But we still need your help. We want volunteers to act as stewards or supervisors on the day. If you are able to fill this important role your duties will be principally concerned with ensuring crowd safety. Stewards will liaise with march organisers and help direct the flow of people away from traffic while at the same time ensuring that campaigners keep to the approved route through central London.

If you can act as a steward or if you plan to bring a group and want advice on coach-parking or access for the disabled, please contact Debbie Ellis or Chris Brown on the Cannabis March line 0181 964-2692, or fax, 0181-964-2701. Or alternatively you can access our web site at www.independent.co.uk

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