As if dope smokers weren't confused enough already

Charles Clarke's intention to review David Blunkett's decision of a year ago to downgrade cannabis to a class C drug has left Britain's five million users, not to mention police, medical experts and politicians, more unclear than ever. Is the government U-turn due to genuine health concerns over the drug's link to mental illness, or has it got more to do with the coming election?
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Walking through clouds of blue cannabis smoke, the policeman did not know what to do. "You just don't have time to stop everybody, not in a place like this," he said at Camden Lock in north London yesterday. "It's all over the place."

Walking through clouds of blue cannabis smoke, the policeman did not know what to do. "You just don't have time to stop everybody, not in a place like this," he said at Camden Lock in north London yesterday. "It's all over the place."

Smoking your own dope is unlikely to get you arrested since the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, downgraded cannabis to a class C drug just over a year ago. But now his successor, Charles Clarke, looks like reversing that decision. Smokers are totally confused.

"Everybody thinks dope is legal," said the officer, who did not want to give his name. "It isn't. it's illegal. Now they're changing the classification back again. I don't think they know what they're doing."

The beat bobbies patrolling among the market stalls at Camden were ready to arrest anyone who looked under 18 for smoking a spliff in the street. "They want to stop the kids doing it. Adults, we'll take it off them and give them a warning. But you always have to explain that it is illegal."

The smell of burning cannabis wafted all the way down Camden High Street. Rubbery and aromatic, it mingled with the smell of joss sticks and three-for-two falafels. Along the main drag there were sweetie-coloured waterpipes and cannabis lollies for sale, Rizlas in every size and colour and "fresh magic mushrooms" sweating in the afternoon sun.

"We're hoping this reclassification won't get through before the election," said one stallholder, morosely. Another had good reason for wanting the drug to be legalised. "If you gave people a choice you would stop the black market," he reasoned, "and you would stop the really sleazy element that you find selling cannabis as a cover for much worse."

Why is it changing now, everyone wanted to know. The cynical answer is that there is an election coming up and Labour is trying to head off a Tory charge that it is soft on drugs. Officially, the Home Office says the change of mind is in response to recent medical studies that suggest heavy use of cannabis may lead to increased risk of psychotic symptoms. A senior source inside the Home Office said the decision to ask for a review of last year's downgrading had also been motivated by concerns over the damaging effects of super-strong variants of skunk cannabis.

There are more than five million cannabis users in this country and drugs experts say only a fraction have been affected by mental health problems as a result of their habit. They are still in danger of arrest, however - whatever the smokers of Camden think. Days before David Blunkett announced the reclassification in January 2004 he received a visit from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and his colleague in charge of the Met's anti-drugs unit. They persuaded Mr Blunkett to add a clause allowing officers the right to arrest anyone found in possession.

Unfortunately, a widely publicised experiment in Lambeth had already led smokers to believe they were safe. Officers there had been encouraged to warn people caught with cannabis for personal use, instead of arresting them. The controversial exercise was led by Brian Paddick, now a deputy assistant commissioner with the Met, who told The Independent on Sunday yesterday that his non-arrest policy had been "the right decision at the time".

He backed the change of mind, however: "If there is more recent research then clearly it would be appropriate to review the decision in light of that."

Mike Trace, the Government's former deputy drugs tsar, was surprised about the timing of the review but said Mr Clarke was right to ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to do the work rather than leave it to ministers. "I'm surprised that having made a brave decision about reclassification they are messing about with this again," he said. "We have known about skunk for years. The studies have only shown results in a small-scale way."

Dame Ruth Runciman, who chaired an influential committee that called for reclassification, said: "I'm not aware that any significant evidence has come forward to justify relooking at cannabis after such a short space of time. People forget that it still attracts one of the highest penalties compared with the rest of Europe: two years in prison for possession and 14 years for trafficking. A law which is credible to young people is more valuable to education than a law which is palpably at odds with their experience. More punitive punishment is not going to solve mental health problems."

Calls for the decriminalisation of cannabis date back to the 1960s, when John Lennon and Paul McCartney attended a rally in Hyde Park and were howled at by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Protesters were arrested for throwing flowers. Supporters of decriminalisation published a full-page advertisement in The Times in 1968 signed by many establishment figures including the future (disgraced) Tory minister Jonathan Aitken. The same newspaper carried a leader when Mick Jagger was arrested for possession, comparing the prosecution to the breaking of a butterfly upon a wheel.

The first mainstream political party to tackle the issue was the Liberal Democrats, whose annual conference voted for a change in the cannabis laws, to the horror of then leader Paddy Ashdown. He refused to answer a question about whether he had ever taken dope. When Clare Short suggested in a TV interview in 1995 that Labour should rethink the cannabis laws, she was made to go to the party leader's office to apologise to him in person. That was before Mo Mowlam became the first prominent Labour politician to admit trying the drug.

The mood was changing. In 1997, when The Independent on Sunday launched its own campaign for the decriminalisation of cannabis, an IoS poll revealed 80 per cent of the population was in favour. The campaign was endorsed by many prominent people including the financier George Soros, who called it "an important and courageous initiative". Other supporters included then EU Commissioner Emma Bonino, Germaine Greer and Anita Roddick, campaigner and founder of Body Shop. Even the Townswomen's Guild came out in favour by a huge majority in a vote of its 80,000 members. A British Medical Association report favoured decriminalising a drug it considered to be safe.

More than 16,000 people attended a rally in Hyde Park, many of them people in wheelchairs who said the drug helped ease their pain. There were no arrests.

In the late 1990s, a Lords committee on science and technology concluded that cannabis could contribute to psychotic illness but without being the single cause of this.

Jack Straw, as Home Secretary, took a hard line on cannabis, both before and after his son, Will, was exposed by the Daily Mirror for offering to supply one of its undercover journalists with a spliff. Ann Widdecombe, then Shadow Home Secretary, decided to outdo Mr Straw with a speech to the 2000 annual Tory party conference, in which she said that teenagers caught with cannabis joints, even if they were only for personal use, would be given criminal records. This policy was vehemently opposed by Tory modernisers. Ms Widdecombe was humiliated when eight members of the Shadow Cabinet admitted to The Mail on Sunday that they had experimented with cannabis when they were young.

Charles Clarke was a Home Office minister when David Blunkett proposed changing cannabis from class B to class C, and he opposed the idea. Now he is Home Secretary, and the trend towards liberalisation is being reversed with a passion - thanks to a mixture of medical research, experience on the ground and hard political expediency.

Frank Dobson MP, whose constituency includes Camden Lock, said yesterday: "When I was Health Secretary I was advised that cannabis was more carcinogenic than tobacco to smoke, that it was more toxic than alcohol, and that it could trigger mental illness. When the Government reclassified the drug, it unfortunately gave the impression that smoking cannabis was sort of all right. I have spoken to head teachers who have told it made the problems worse."

Down beside the canal yesterday, the smokers were well aware of the borough's reputation. "We're from South Africa," said Nando. "But we came to Camden specially to buy it. I could show you - approach anyone in the high street and if they don't have any they'll tell you who does."

Nando had been smoking since he was 12 - more than half his life. But he was worried. "My grandfather has been smoking since he was 25," he said. "His mental capacity is not what it should be. His capacity for reasoning, his memory span. Now they're messing with the genetics of cannabis, making extra strong skunk. I will have to stop, eventually."

Under a bridge a little further on, more people were confused about the legal status of the drug they were smoking. Ali, a teenager, said: "They didn't legalise it; they changed the class to make it like mushrooms or poppers or something. I don't know, but I know everybody does it."

One smoker, at least, knew that what she was doing was illegal. But it would not stop her. "I can't imagine anyone being remotely affected by what class of drug it is," sniffed Lizzie. "It's like being scared to go over the 30mph speed limit when every other car on the road is doing 40," she added, casually sparking up another joint rolled in liquorice paper. "They can't prosecute everybody, can they?"


'I think it's safe for medicinal uses'

Michael Holroyd (biographer): "I do not know if there is new scientific evidence that would warrant looking at it again. If there is new evidence then it should be. I've always thought that, for medicinal purposes, there is no doubt. For recreational uses, perhaps not a strong skunk, but with ordinary cannabis, I would like to think it is not harmful."

'Good arguments on both sides'

Max Clifford (publicist): "In the current climate, with an election soon, I can understand the decision. The problem is that, if you talk to experts, you get good arguments on both sides. In my experience of arthritis, there are quite a lot of people I know of whose life has been radically improved."

'Half-way house policy is difficult'

Fay Weldon (writer): "I think this kind of half-way house is very difficult. I'd like to take a totally liberal line and you hope that rationality will prevail. But when I hear that the Government wants to reclassify skunk, I think 'thank God, because it drives young people mad.' But it's gone so far now that it's going to be rather like stopping hunting."