I've never been threatened with violence by women waving joints

Mo Mowlam has been cha-cha-cha-ing this last week while New Labour dances to a different tune

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She announced that cannabis might be legalised for medicinal use by next year and also denied that she believed that cannabis was a gateway to other, more serious drug use. Immediate slapdowns occurred and the date of cannaboids (what a great word) being legalised metamorphosed seamlessly into 2004 at the earliest, while Mo was forced to admit a "difference in emphasis" between herself and her colleagues on the gateway issue.

She announced that cannabis might be legalised for medicinal use by next year and also denied that she believed that cannabis was a gateway to other, more serious drug use. Immediate slapdowns occurred and the date of cannaboids (what a great word) being legalised metamorphosed seamlessly into 2004 at the earliest, while Mo was forced to admit a "difference in emphasis" between herself and her colleagues on the gateway issue.

Let's start with this gateway theory. It has always been a cherished tenet of the right - which, of course, these days includes New Labour more often than not - that a mere puff on a joint can launch you into an orbit of hideous drug abuse ending with you in the gutter, having relieved yourself of all your possessions, the contents of your stomach and your bladder. Many regular alcohol consumers may recognise this scenario, and I'm sailing with Mo on the "alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis" boat. After all, I've never been threatened with violence by a load of women waving joints in a toilet in Camden.

This old-fogeyish approach to cannabis fails to take into account many subtle (and quite a few obvious) variables. It combines the sophistication of Girl Power coupled with the intellectual rigour of a Westlife lyric and the depth of a Clarkson interview.

It seems to me that the By-God-Cannabis-Is-A-Gateway-To-Much-Filthier-Substances-Muriel mob are, on the whole, a lot of old farts who have never tried cannabis, let alone have the faintest idea of its effects, but allow their fantasies to range from visions of psychotic, homicidal behaviour to comatose automatism in which cannabis-sodden individuals stalk the earth, lie down a lot, giggle incessantly and avoid getting a job at all costs.

One must take into account the enormous range of types of cannabis, from the weediest weed that makes you peckish to the full-blown other-world-inducing power of something like "double zero" which takes you out of your body, throws you round the universe and only pops you back in when you've nearly died of fear or laughing.

The father of a friend of mine once asked me to get him some cannabis, because he wanted to see the effect for himself. Far from him staggering about eating the contents of the fridge and sniggering uncontrollably, a whole joint smoked exclusively by him didn't even touch the sides and left him strangely perturbed that Blake-type visions hadn't come upon him. This fits in with a study I read ages ago as a lazy sociology student, which posited that the pleasure to be gained from cannabis is a one to be learnt within the bosom of one's peer group and, unless you know how to feel, you can't feel it.

Speaking of peer groups, I believe that they are one of the most influential factors involved in long-term drug use, and this is why, when people are trying to get off drugs, they are advised to completely change their lifestyle and drop their old friends. I suppose it's similar to giving up drinking or smoking: you wouldn't carry on going to the pub six days a week or anxiously following Silk Cut inhalers down the street desperately trying to get a sniff.

I know people who use a lot of cannabis and have done so for years without becoming addicted to something more scary, and it doesn't seem to have done them any more harm than making them slightly fatuous and silly.

The whole issue of the medical application of cannabis seems to be farcical. It's quite an easy drug to get hold of these days, and most people don't purchase it from a demon with horns who eats children, but go to their local innocuous-looking student type who grows twice as much as he needs and makes a bit on the side. I mean, my God, even some geezer in Peak Practice, television's most fogey-friendly production, is at it to self-treat his rheumatic pain, with his GP remarking to his girlfriend that he would turn a blind eye because of the beneficial effects.

Other variables to take into account as far as the continuum of drug use/abuse is concerned are the dependent personality, individual physiology, the unhelpful behaviour of the police on occasions (a friend of mine who was in the Met used to describe to me how the size of a lump of dope would miraculously shrink to nothing on its journey from the arrest to its appearance as evidence in court), individual personality traits, one's socio-economic background, parental input, market conditions ... well I could blah on for ever.

As a drug of choice I'd far rather the kids were experimenting with cannabis rather than crack, acid or indeed Valium which was introduced into many peoples' lives in the Sixties by those well-known drug-dealer GPs and left a generation of women Stepfordised.

Perhaps the first step in banishing ignorance and fear is to teach all those who are unfamiliar with the effects of cannabis just what it feels like. Who knows, man, it could have positive effects: fuel blockades full of laid-back farmers and chortling hauliers; Tory party conferences where the sandwiches are a far bigger focus of attention than asylum-seekers. Then the anti-cannabis lobby will be able to say it knows what it is talking about. And that will make a change.

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