Why we're marching today

Last September, the 'Independent on Sunday' called for the decriminalis ation of cannabis. Today, thousands will be in London to add their support.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
TODAY, for the first time in 30 years, the streets of London will be thronged with people who want the freedom to smoke cannabis without fear of arrest.

The reason they are there is due to a campaign begun six months ago by our sister paper, the Independent on Sunday, which has attracted support from thousands of readers, as well as doctors, politicians, and people from the worlds of business and the arts.

The paper's editor, Rosie Boycott, opened the campaign by disregarding the hypocrisy that has traditionally surrounded this subject to write frankly about her own experiences. "I rolled my first joint on a hot June day in Hyde Park in the summer of 1968. Just 17 and desperate to be grown- up. Since my first joint, I have smoked a good many more, although I hardly smoke at all nowadays. The habit has given up on me. But I don't see why people who share my earlier enthusiasm should be branded as criminal.

"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, after 30 years cannabis is still officially regarded as a dangerous drug," she wrote.

Last September, the honeymoon period enjoyed by the new Labour Government was coming to a close. It had become clear by then that on the issue of drug law reform the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, was happy to endorse the same hard-line policies of his predecessor, Michael Howard.

Rosie Boycott's decision to "out" herself struck a chord with those who had hoped for a more radical approach from new Labour. "I quickly realised that I was pushing against an open door. There are plenty of people, who like me, believe it is high time we adopted a more sensible approach to cannabis," she said this week.

Paul McCartney, Anita Roddick and Richard Branson were among the first to endorse the campaign. In the following weeks they were joined by the highest achievers from the worlds of arts and entertainment, literature, medicine, and intellectually accomplished.

Janet Suzman, the classical actress, Labour's Ken Livingstone, Professor Colin Blakemore, Harold Pinter and Martin Amis soon followed. The support of so many celebrities encouraged readers to add their names, and to date more than 14,000 have signed; each week more join.

The campaign received its first boost last October when, surprisingly, the most senior judge in England and Wales backed calls for a public debate on the legalisation of soft drugs, including cannabis.

Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, made it clear that while he was not expressing a personal view on decriminalisation, it was an issue that merited consideration. "It is a subject that deserves, in my judgment, detached, objective, independent consideration," he said.

Many reformers saw this statement as a deliberate riposte to Jack Straw's earlier announcement not to grant a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the working of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act which prohibits the use of cannabis.

In the same month an opinion poll commissioned by the IoS revealed that 80 per cent of people wanted the current laws relaxed and that more than one third wanted the immediate decriminalisation of cannabis for recreational purposes.

In November, the medical side of the argument was significantly advanced by the British Medical Association's decision to publish an 80-page review which overturned the old assumption that cannabis was a drug with no therapeutic benefits. Demands for doctors to be allowed to prescribe cannabis as a medicine had been growing for more than a decade. Strong anecdotal evidence had suggested it was good for treating muscle spasticity connected to Multiple Sclerosis, anorexia, some forms of epilepsy, glaucoma, asthma and hypertension.

The influential BMA urged the Government to "consider changing the Misuse of Drugs Act to allow the prescription of cannabinoids (active chemical compounds in cannabis) to patients with certain conditions causing distress that are not adequately controlled by existing treatments."

They went further and recommended that "while research is under way, the police, the courts and other prosecuting authorities should be made aware of the medical reasons for the unlawful use of cannabis by those suffering from certain medical conditions for whom other drugs have proved ineffective".

Whilst the Government has turned a deaf ear to the report, there is evidence that the magistrates have responded.

The IoS campaign consistently revealed cases where individuals suffering from crippling disease had been convicted or sent to prison for using cannabis to ease their pain. Following the BMA report, some courts took a more lenient approach in line with their recommendations and issued admonishments and lighter fines to invalids in the dock.

The case for applying the criminal law to protect public health suffered another setback with the leaking of a World Health Organisation report in February. The report, that had been suppressed by officials, contained analysis by an expert panel of scientists, which determined that long- term use of cannabis was less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. The magazine New Scientist, which broke the story, said: "Politicians will just have to bite the bullet - cannabis will have to be decriminalised."

However, the one event to make most impact on the campaign came from the least likely source. On Saturday 13 December, a young woman bought a small amount of cannabis from a young man in a London pub. An unremarkable event, commonplace even. Except that young man with the pounds 10 deal was William Straw, son of the more famous Jack. The issue of the 17-year-old's identity loomed over the whole of last Christmas, until early in the New Year it was revealed that the Home Secretary had turned in his son and expected him to face the consequences.

In the end, he got off with a caution, and the woman who set the deal up, a reporter from the Daily Mirror, was accused of entrapment.

The incident proved embarrassing for the Government, although the Prime Minister was quick to give his minister his full support, and proved once and for all that cannabis use is more widespread than even the most fervent advocate had suspected.

And so we come to the march. After six months of debating the case in print, it was clearly time to turn words into action. Throughout the campaign, the involvement and support of readers has been vital. The passions raised by the question of cannabis decriminalisation run deep.

It was agreed that the best way to harness the energy and enthusiasm of those who have so eagerly supported the campaign was to invite them to "stand up and be counted" And by 4pm this afternoon, those who march will have earned their place in the history of the struggle to decriminalise cannabis.

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