An illogical and damaging change in drug laws

This legislation will erode the incentive to stick with cannabis dealing and stay away from hard drugs
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The Independent Online

It is easy to see the thinking behind the claim that the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C will be accompanied by a doubling of sentences for dealers in this drug. So many people are so passionately against the softening of the law against cannabis that some reassurance for them is seen as a political necessity. Drugs campaigners have responded by saying that the contrast between lower penalties for those who use, and higher penalties for those who supply, will send out a mixed message and confuse the public. That may well be true. But I, for one, wish a little confusion was the only consequence of this very dodgy compromise. Sadly, though, it is not.

It is easy to see the thinking behind the claim that the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C will be accompanied by a doubling of sentences for dealers in this drug. So many people are so passionately against the softening of the law against cannabis that some reassurance for them is seen as a political necessity. Drugs campaigners have responded by saying that the contrast between lower penalties for those who use, and higher penalties for those who supply, will send out a mixed message and confuse the public. That may well be true. But I, for one, wish a little confusion was the only consequence of this very dodgy compromise. Sadly, though, it is not.

The reclassification of cannabis is significant, as it means that there is no longer any automatic power of arrest for possession of this recreational drug. Essentially it means that the "Lambeth experiment", whereby police caution users and confiscate their cannabis rather than arresting them, is to be rolled out across the nation.

This move effectively annuls one of the most persuasive arguments used by critics of the Lambeth experiment. They say that the unique position of Lambeth has made it a Mecca for "drug tourism". Analysis of police records of the 1,190 cautions given in the year of the Lambeth pilot suggests that the increase is a myth. But with reclassification the question will be academic. Lambeth will no longer be unique, so any attraction for out-of-borough users will end.

But far from cancelling the other great criticism of the Lambeth experiment, the rolling out will spread fear among those who dread drugs the most. Parents, as well as some youth workers in Lambeth, say that use among children has increased during the pilot, as young people now believe cannabis to be legal. Again, Lambeth police refute this, citing a questionnaire sent to schools in the area that suggests that use has not gone up.

According to the area's MP, Kate Hoey, who is against the experiment, this evidence is disingenuous. "It's absolute nonsense to rely on the questionnaire because it's not the children in school who are at greatest risk," she argues. "It is those who are truanting, the children who are not part of the mainstream that teachers are not in touch with."

What Ms Hoey says is true to a degree, because the children she speaks of are more vulnerable to absolutely everything, as are the socially excluded generally. Drugs, good, dirty fun for those with stable lives, wreck havoc among those whose life chances are narrow. It is this fact that has led to a notable, and justified, class division in attitudes to cannabis smoking, not just in Lambeth, but more generally across the inner cities.

The middle classes – who might have a joint or two to wind down with at the weekend or at the end of the day – are far more supportive of reclassification than those at the sharp end of deprivation, who see children exploited by drug dealers eager to give them cannabis as part of a grooming process that can have them addicted to crack or heroin at pitifully early ages.

Such progressions are at the heart of arguments that point to cannabis as a "gateway" drug. The link between cannabis and harder drugs is procedural rather than intrinsic, and much exacerbated by the necessity of the customer to enter a market just as illegal for cannabis as it is for crack. By increasing penalties for cannabis dealing, the Government would be encouraging this problem, rather than intervening against it.

By classifying cannabis dealing alongside violent assault and gun crime, as the new legislation will, the incentive to stick with cannabis dealing and stay away from hard-drug dealing will be severely eroded. Cannabis is more likely than ever to be sold alongside hard drugs by people who consider themselves to be professional criminals, rather than by soft-drug dealers who often see themselves as freedom fighters and put-upon campaigners for civil liberties.

There is some justification for their mildly eccentric view. For while it is fashionable to rail against all drug dealers as the scum of the earth, this is not the case. There are such people as moral drug dealers, who steer clear of drugs they know to be really dangerous. And there are certainly such people as responsible cannabis dealers.

They are sure, again with some justification, that their illegal business does no great harm – no greater harm than the publican or the licensed shopkeeper. They do not sell on the streets, or indeed to any customers who have not been introduced to them by another trusted customer. They would never sell to minors. They stay away from even offering hard drugs, let alone pushing them in order to increase business by adding spiralling addiction to the equation.

Now, just as their customers have become less at risk, their own position has become more perilous. Many may pack up altogether, contemplating the danger of a 10- instead of a five-year stretch, just when they hoped for a move towards some liberalisation of their position. The incentive for dealers to behave responsibly in the future will be hugely eroded by this draconian move.

The result will be more people heading for areas known to have street dealers and more people finding it lucrative to push harder drugs alongside cannabis, because the whole cannabis market will accrue to the unscrupulous dealers. The vulnerable will be in even more danger, and so, to a lesser extent, will the middle-class user.

Some of the blame for this deeply unfortunate turn of events must be placed on the shoulders of those entrepreneurs who have been running ahead of legislation, and pushing too hard to achieve too much change too quickly. Colin Davies, the disabled champion of medical cannabis use, is once more on remand in Strangeways. To campaigners for the legalisation of cannabis, he is a martyr.

But there is no doubt that he jumped the reclassification gun far too eagerly by setting up a coffee shop called the Dutch Experience in Stockport and another one in Bournemouth, as well as promising to open 10 or 12 more branches. Simon Woodroffe, who started the restaurant chain Yo! Sushi!, must also have frightened the horses with his promise to start a new chain called Yo! Blow!

But while these men have been pushing too hard at a door only open a chink, it is their instinct and not the Home Office's that is right. They think that cannabis import and supply should be regulated and in the hands of responsible people, so that the link with hard drugs can be hugely weakened.

Likewise the logic behind the select committee's recommendation of decriminalisation was that cannabis needed to be separated from hard drugs. But that separation has been undermined by the mixed approach the Government has decided on. The separation needs to be at the point of supply, not at the point of consumption.The opposite is happening instead.

The most disheartening aspect of this contradictory change in the law is that changes in patterns of supply and use of cannabis cannot now be easily analysed. No one will be able to say whether changes have come about because of the reclassification or because of the increase in penalties for dealers. Changes in drug law are best taken one step at a time. No change at all would have been preferable to this dangerous fudge.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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