Deborah Orr: I've changed my mind about cannabis

Not so long ago I considered cannabis to be utterly harmless. I now believe this wrong-headed
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The Independent Online

It's not not surprising that London's Lambeth Council has this year denied permission for a Legalise Cannabis festival to take place in Brixton's Brockwell Park. The event has been passing off peacefully, if somewhat crustily, for some years now. But since Brixton became - in the eyes of the media - a single-issue cardboard-cut-out dopehead community, it is easy to see why local government might be keen to create a little distance.

It's not not surprising that London's Lambeth Council has this year denied permission for a Legalise Cannabis festival to take place in Brixton's Brockwell Park. The event has been passing off peacefully, if somewhat crustily, for some years now. But since Brixton became - in the eyes of the media - a single-issue cardboard-cut-out dopehead community, it is easy to see why local government might be keen to create a little distance.

Brixton has long been a part of London associated with cannabis use. But the real controversy came when a local police commander, Brian Paddick, began to reflect this long-standing tradition in his attitude to policing the area. A media campaign against his "softly-softly" approach to cannabis possession, which meant cautioning cannabis users and concentrating on arresting those involved with hard drugs, eventually made his position untenable, even though views similar to his own were shortly afterwards adopted as nationwide policy.

There's irony, of course, in the fact that the party in Brixton has been so rudely interrupted so very soon after the Legalise Cannabis Campaign achieved its great leap forward. Partly this has been because much of the media focus on Brixton has been so disruptive and damaging - residents are agreed that the degree to which Brixton is seen as a destination for "drug tourism" has gone up. But the move is indicative as well of an orchestrated backlash against the Government's reclassification of the drug from class B to class C.

Since the reclassification last year there has been a flood oF information arguing dire consequences for users of cannabis. "Cannabis use brings ten-fold risk of having a fatal crash," warned one headline yesterday, suggesting the evidence served to "add to the controversy over Labour's downgrading of cannabis".

Actually though, that's far from the conclusion that the lead author of the research has reached. Dr Stephanie Blows, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, writing in the May issue of the journal Addiction, says that the research has shown that those who used cannabis prior to driving were highly likely to be habitual users and a clear target, therefore, for an educational campaign.

This is clearly a harm minimisation strategy, carrying with it an implicit acceptance that it is more sensible to attempt to influence the behaviour of people using cannabis than to criminalise the activity altogether.

At present, cannabis users are often dishonest with themselves about driving under the influence. With alcohol, the rules are widely - after many years pretty much universally - understood. With cannabis though, there's a huge blurring of the message.

A sensible response to the fact that using dope damages driving ability is to make it explicit that smoking dope and driving risks lives in much the same way that drinking and driving does . The trouble is that such approaches are anathema to those who see prohibition as a viable option.

In fact, the objection to the government's reclassification of cannabis that seems to upset the public most is the one which argues that nobody understands it. There have been various gatherings together of schoolchildren on our television screens, as they are asked whether they think cannabis has been legalised. They often oblige by replying that they do consider it legal, even though the reclassification was accompanied by an advertising campaign explaining that it wasn't.

But the real reason why children don't understand that dope is illegal is not simply because the government hasn't educated them well enough; but, even more simply, because they see older figures in their daily lives using it openly and regularly, whatever the law may say.

Because dope is a drug that is seen as an aid to relaxation, it is far more likely to be consumed at home than other drugs, which are much more associated with going out. Parents no more hide their joints from their children than they hide their glass of wine. For the prohibitionists, this is a sign of moral decay. For the legalisers, it's an indication of the reality of dope's wide social acceptance.

Increasingly though, for psychiatrists, it is simply a health hazard. There is now persuasive research indicating that while older users tend not to suffer long-tern harm from cannabis use, the adolescent - rapidly developing - brain is damaged by cannabis; and damaged in a way that for the present at least, is irreparable.

Depression, anxiety, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the precipitation of schizophenia in vulnerable individuals, and a worsened prognosis for people who have already developed schizophrenia: these are psychological problems that are definitely linked to cannabis. There is a real need to step back from the cultural war whereby one side talks down the dangers in its pursuit of legalisation, and another talks them up in pursuit of prohibition.

On the whole, I believe, the reclassification of cannabis has been a good thing. It certainly appears - along with the push for the use of cannabis to be legalised for medicinal purposes - to have stimulated a great deal of much-needed research into the effects of the drug, and I think it is true to say that a more liberal debate around drugs since Labour came in in 1997 has resulted in much greater knowledge of what we are dealing with.

Not so long ago, I honestly considered cannabis use to be utterly harmless. In common with many others, I made only the most formal nods towards hiding the activity from children. In fact, years ago when there was a large Legalise Cannabis march in London, a friend's daughter admitted that she had not known the substance was illegal until then. Even now, I know a number of people who smoke dope with their teenage children, under the impression that a "French" approach to cannabis will work in the same way as a "French" approach to wine. I now believe this to be an extremely wrong-headed attitude.

The situation is this; cannabis is widely used and is widely used by many generations of adults now. Many of them are not being well served by a campaign for legalisation which prefers to remain suspicious of all research that does not fit in with an ideological rather than scientific goal. Nor are they terribly receptive to a right-wing campaign which is fixated on changing the law instead of changing people's habits.

On both sides of the debate, there has to be an acceptance that a "softly-softly" approach, just like Commander Paddick's, is the happiest possible compromise. What people need most of all is for information on cannabis to be clear and uncontroversial. The goal should be harm minimisation. All those with a vested interest in the subject have to start asking themselves if they are part of the problem or part of the solution.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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