Roll up for an adult debate about drugs

Despite the wide use of cannabis, politicians refuse even to discuss legalising it. Jack O'Sullivan weighs the arguments

LEGAL NOTE: Legal Message. Henry Bellingham would like it known he does not support the legalisation of cannabis.



Jack O'Sullivan

Cannabis is the talk of Britain. There are lots of words for it: marijuana, pot, puff, blow, grass, skunk, purple haze. A quarter of all 15- and 16-year-olds admit to using it. Six million of us have tried it - 1.5 million have a regular spliff. Just one group of people is oblivious to the phenomenon: top politicians hate talking about dope.

The law is being made an ass, but question Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and he'll tell you that change is out of the question. Jack Straw, his Labour shadow, (and one-time fun-loving student leader) will go red in the face of suggestions that the main parties should come up with a better "joint" policy.

You can see why they're cautious. A substantial minority may be drawing on their black Leb, but most voters still hate the whiff of weed. Six out of 10 believe, according to a poll commissioned by the Independent, that the drug should remain illegal. Even among the 15-24 age group almost half oppose bringing cannabis within the law. Of course, this means that lots want change, but party policies are studiously ignoring them. "Give the majority what they want, don't let the minority smoke what they want," is the motto.

And when Clare Short abandoned orthodoxy and called for a rethink on pot, her initiative was firmly stubbed out. Stay on line was the word from Labour's smoke-filled backrooms, forcing yesterday's apology from the Labour front-bencher.

Yet Ms Short knows, as well as her colleagues, that this popular phenomenon will not be blown away by silence. Cannabis is cheap and readily available across the country: pounds 7.50 - the price of a round of drinks - will buy one-sixteenth of an ounce, enough to keep a group of youngsters mellow for an hour or two. And it is considered relatively harmless. Against the hundreds of thousands of deaths associated with tobacco use and health problems produced by alcohol, a spliff seems innocuous to many people.

The police appear to agree. Senior police officers want reform. On their patches, they are changing policy on the quiet. Offenders are treated more leniently than in the past: those receiving cautions for cannabis possession have risen from 1 per cent of cases in 1981 to 45 per cent in 1992. But policy varies greatly around the country: Sally Murray of the Kaleidoscope, a drug rehabilitation centre, says: "It depends on the whim, knowledge and intelligence of individual officers."

But official policy remains unforgiving. The law retains draconian provisions. The maximum penalty for possessing cannabis is still five years in jail plus a fine: dealing in the drug could leave an offender behind bars for 14 years. The jailing of Graeme Steel, son of Sir David Steel, the former Liberal Democrat leader, shows what can happen: he was sent down for nine months after police found 40 cannabis plants at his home. Cannabis use is also landing more and more people with a criminal record. In 1993, more than 50,000 people were so branded for using cannabis, almost three times as many as in 1983.

So is it now time to liberalise the law? Opponents of change marshal a number of arguments. First, they put forward the "escalation theory", the view that cannabis use leads directly to the purchase of harder drugs such as heroin. They point out that cannabis is the first illegal drug that most present heroin users bought. But this does not clinch the argument since the majority of cannabis users never try anything harder. Indeed, it is frequently contended that making cannabis legal might actually reduce heroin use by cutting down on the number of people consuming unlawful narcotics and so making themselves open to trying other illegal substances.

Health is the next issue that conservatives raise. We do not know the long-term effects of cannabis use, which may cause cancer of the lung and other parts of the digestive tract. The drug contains high concentrations of potentially carcinogenic tar and users tend to inhale more deeply than cigarette smokers. There is a raging medical controversy on this issue. In 1992, Gabriel Nahas, Professor of Anaesthesiology at New York University, alleged that marijuana carried a serious cancer threat. But his evidence, methods and quotation of literature have been heavily attacked by his peers as unreliable.

There is another health problem, namely the strength of cannabis now available. Potency has increased hugely following the cross-breeding of plants and genetic engineering, which means that a spliff may now not only give a sense of relaxed well-being, but hallucinations that could damage anyone who was mentally unstable.

Despite these concerns, it is hard to sustain the cannabis ban on health grounds as long as tobacco remains not only legal, but also widely advertised. There is little evidence that the danger to adults of consuming cannabis is so great as to justify the state curbing civil rights.

The real reason why the leadership of the two main political parties have decided not to reform the cannabis laws is because each is worried about being labelled soft on drugs by their opponents. The pillorying of the Liberal Democrat conference in 1994, after delegates voted for a re-examination of the issue, gave a clear warning to any serious politician tempted to break ranks.

Against these cautious conservatives running the main parties are ranged the back-bench reformers. Right-wing libertarians such as Teresa Gorman see the state as having no right to interfere. They have found common cause with Labour leftwingers such as Tony Banks angered that so many are needlessly being outlawed.

There is, however, a great range of opinion among reformers about the extent of change that is needed. The easiest measure would be to repeal the 22-year-old ban on the medical use of cannabis for conditions such as multiple sclerosis: two-thirds of people would support this amendment, according to our opinion poll.

Others argue for general decriminalisation of cannabis. Users would be subject to a token fine if caught in public, but face no greater penance than those guilty of a parking offence. But most campaigning groups, such as Release, the national drugs and legal advice service, want more dramatic change. "If we had proper legalisation," says director Mike Goodman, "we would have proper quality control of this drug, taking it out of the criminal world and making sure consumers and young people had the same protection that applies to other products."

The rational argument looks to be in Mr Goodman's favour. It may be time for politicians to relax, loosen up a bit. But this week's censoring of Clare Short suggests that they remain a long way from being capable of conducting a serious debate about the issue, let alone instituting liberal reform.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine