After decades of madness, our politicians have seen the light: where there's life, there's dope

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The Independent Online

In the 1950s, Hollywood said it gave you "reefer madness". In the 1960s, the police measured it in "grains" – the weight of a barleycorn – and in the pop world you were no one until you'd been busted for it.

In the 1950s, Hollywood said it gave you "reefer madness". In the 1960s, the police measured it in "grains" – the weight of a barleycorn – and in the pop world you were no one until you'd been busted for it. In the 1970s, it became the staple of hippiedom; in the 1980s, it became respectable. And in the 1990s, doctors said they wanted to prescribe it.

Naturally, it's cannabis, the drug that even your parents had a hard time disliking. Less harmful than alcohol, non-addictive and actually therapeutic for multiple sclerosis sufferers, why it wasn't reclassified long before now is hard to imagine.

The reason is that for decades it has represented more than the sum of its own relatively harmless parts. In the 1960s, when it began to become popular in Britain, it was a metaphor for all that was wrong with youth, with permissiveness, with sexual freedom and equality, with everything that threatened to upset the established order.

The first drugs raid in which cannabis was seized is reputed to have been at the Number 11 Jazz Club in Soho in 1952. But not until 15 years later did the most famous drugs bust of all time took place, a raid that was to demonstrate the futility of criminalising cannabis in a police exercise that holds a special place in drugs folklore.

Tipped off by the News of the World, police raided Redlands, the West Sussex home of the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. There, they found a "Miss X" – later identified as Marianne Faithfull – naked under a fur rug and allegedly under the influence of marijuana, with a small group of other apparently stoned people.

Richards was sentenced to a year in prison plus £500 costs for simply allowing his home to be used, while Mick Jagger – the man who terrified the nation's parents at the best of times – was sentenced to three months for being in possession of four "uppers" that had been bought legally in Italy. He had not even tried what the court quaintly called "Indian hemp". The sentences were later reduced on appeal, but the argument had already begun: were you for or against pot?

Newspapers began to wade in, with an editorial in The Times by William Rees-Mogg that famously criticised the scapegoating of Jagger under the headline "Who breaks a butterfly on the wheel?"

The following year the "for" camp was given a boost when John Lennon's home in Marylebone, north London, was raided by police with sniffer dogs and he was fined £150 with costs of 20 guineas for possessing 219 grains (about half an ounce) of cannabis resin.

Before long, Paul McCartney was describing how the band had been introduced to marijuana by Bob Dylan. And there was even a character in the animated children's programme, The Magic Roundabout, called Dylan, who was constantly stoned under a cloud of smoke. The question was raised: how bad can this stuff be?

Many people decided to answer the question for themselves. By the end of the 1960s, even when it was attracting so much publicity, only about 2 per cent of the population had tried cannabis. Today, surveys show that 40 per cent of children aged 15 or 16 have tried it, while the figure for adults as a whole varies between 10 and 50 per cent.

For the police, arresting increasing numbers of people as the drug became ubiquitous proved to be a huge waste of time. In 1999, 68 per cent of the 120,000 drug offences were cannabis-related, each one taking officers two to three hours to process.

These were statistics that came to be viewed as ridiculous by the public and unsustainable by the police – and even politicians. In 1967, an advertisement had appeared in The Times arguing that: "The law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice." Then, it had been signed by more than 60 luminaries and politicians, including some as right wing as Jonathan Aitken, who was later to be jailed for other reasons. But during the prissy 1980s, to support drugs of any kind became politically dangerous. Not until the mid-1990s did the costs of policing cannabis allow some MPs, such as Clare Short, now the Secretary of State for Overseas Development, to suggest that we should at least be talking about it.

Led by The Independent on Sunday, which ran a long legalisation campaign under the editorship of Rosie Boycott (who had a cannabis plant in her office), publications such as The Daily Telegraph and even The Spectator began calling for change.

Campaigners marched annually in increasing numbers, smoking the drug openly. With the more open debate came more respectability; cannabis's association – right or wrong – with lazy doped-up hippies was fading into history. The drug's efficacy in alleviating the effects of multiple sclerosis came to the fore. And its uses over thousands of years in the practice of various religions were highlighted by campaigners.

It was, they said, used in Japan in Shinto marriage ceremonies; in Hinduism it was said that the god Shiva brought down cannabis from the mountains for human enjoyment and enlightenment; Tibetan Buddhists are supposed to have regarded cannabis as holy as long ago as the fifth century BC; and Islamic Sufis, campaigners argued, have extolled the virtues of the plant as a bringer of divine revelations. So why shouldn't we use it?

When, earlier this year, Scotland Yard announced that police in Brixton, south London, an area with a high consumption rate of "ganja", would not be arresting people with small amounts of the drug, its rehabilitation was complete.

Some little time may be needed before proponents of cannabis can walk into a newsagent and buy 20 ready-rolled joints (of course, some may say rolling is half the fun).

But if that ever happens, perhaps one Bill Clinton might be at the front of the queue, content in the knowledge that, at last, he is safe to inhale.