High on success from the cannabis campaign

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The Independent Online
The editor of the 'Independent on Sunday', Rosie Boycott, is on a high, but not for the reason some of her critics might suspect. Her campaign to decriminalise cannabis has struck a strong public chord - and is pushing up circulation.

You really shouldn't believe everything you read in The Sun. The Independent on Sunday isn't "going to pot", as the Murdoch tabloid alleged in an editorial the day after we launched our campaign to decriminalise cannabis.

The fact is the IoS is now selling comfortably over 300,000 copies per week for the first time in a long time. At least part of our growing popularity must be a result of our cannabis campaign. A lot of people who had never heard about the "Sindy" before or gave it only a passing glance on the newsstands have suddenly been eagerly seeking us out.

I have been on countless TV programmes (Call Ed Stourton, Newsnight, you name it) and radio phone-in shows over the past month. The campaign has also been covered substantially abroad.

Yet commercial considerations were the last thing on my mind when I decided to embark on this crusade.

I can honestly say that the prime motivation was my own personal convictions. As a reformed alcoholic - I was literally in the gutter at 30 - I have long held strong views on a whole range of public policy issues surrounding drugs and addiction. I have especially always hated the appalling hypocrisy surrounding hash.

It took all of two minutes to convince David Montgomery, chief executive of the Mirror Group, to OK our cannabis campaign. (I thought it was the sort of thing one ought to raise with the proprietors of the paper).

I knew the Downing Street spin doctors would instantly dismiss us as "just a bunch of middle-class, middle-aged hippies wanting to smoke dope", and so it has proved. Those were the very words attributed to a Number 10 spokesman by the London Evening Standard last week.

Writing in that paper, Quentin Letts criticised our campaign because it was not in the same category as the great investigative campaigns of newspaper history, such as The Sunday Times on Thalidomide.

It is daft to compare a campaign against a manufactured drug that deformed babies with our campaign to legalise a natural substance that does few people any harm at all. The challenge of the Thalidomide campaign was to accumulate incriminating facts. The entire British population was on the paper's side. In contrast, we are campaigning against a lot of popular prejudice, which is much harder to do.

But a lot of things have happened in the past few weeks that make me think that we've struck a real chord with the public. Over 2,500 letters have rolled in, many from social workers, teachers and policemen. Only 66 have been opposed to what we're doing.

People want newspapers to stand for something. Obviously, they don't want their newspaper to get up their nose. It would clearly be a rather stupid idea for The Sunday Telegraph, with its readership profile, to launch a campaign to decriminalise cannabis.

But the cannabis campaign fits perfectly with the agenda of The Independent on Sunday. As our ground-breaking new cinema ads (produced by M&C Saatchi) splendidly demonstrate, this is a young title that isn't afraid to break taboos.

I have never stood by the status quo in my life. That has cost me huge amounts of trouble over the years, but it's been frightfully rich and rewarding.

It would be nice to get The Sun on our side, if only because Tony Blair seems so afraid of offending it. But, on the plus side, 90 per cent of the media reaction has been either positive or at least balanced. Our arch rival The Observer has studiously ignored us, of course, but its more self-confident sister title The Guardian has credited us in several follow-up pieces.

We've been encouraged to watch others weigh into the debate even when the IoS didn't get a name check. It was marvellous to see The Daily Express break out of its Middle England mindset by sympathetically spotlighting those who turn in desperation to illegal drugs to alleviate their suffering from other afflictions. Its double-spread feature had a glorious headline: "We break the law on behalf of our health".

The Daily Mail, on the other hand, behaved predictably. It ran a poll which, it claimed, "buried" our findings from the previous Sunday. In fact, if you read the accompanying text, you would see that it reinforced rather than rubbished our chief finding. A majority in the 18-to-24 age group (56 per cent) polled by the The Daily Mail said cannabis should be made legal and 71 per cent said they would approve of a change in the law to make cannabis available for medical purposes. And the Mail's leader had the cheek to accuse us of being "economical with the truth"!

The biggest boost for the campaign came on 8 October when Lord Chief Justice Bingham called for an inquiry into drug laws. "It is a subject that deserves, in my judgement, detached, objective, independent consideration," he pronounced. That is a victory in itself, for our aim has been to get people in power to confront this question seriously.

A fantasy front page headline has already formed in my mind: "Government agrees to royal commission on cannabis". I'm increasingly hopeful that we'll see it in print one day in the not-too-distant future. Then, believe me, I'll be on a real high.