Why control freaks fear cannabis

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The Independent Online

During a live radio programme I took part in a couple of years ago, the panel was asked a question about drugs. I was sitting between a Labour MEP and a Tory frontbencher, both of whom said that discovering your child had smoked cannabis was every parent's worst nightmare. They even lowered their voices as they spoke, presumably to convey the gravity with which they approached the subject. I thought their reaction was preposterous and said so, pointing out that several parents of my acquaintance were grappling with a much more practical dilemma. Should they tell their teenage children about their own occasional indulgence in a joint?

During a live radio programme I took part in a couple of years ago, the panel was asked a question about drugs. I was sitting between a Labour MEP and a Tory frontbencher, both of whom said that discovering your child had smoked cannabis was every parent's worst nightmare. They even lowered their voices as they spoke, presumably to convey the gravity with which they approached the subject. I thought their reaction was preposterous and said so, pointing out that several parents of my acquaintance were grappling with a much more practical dilemma. Should they tell their teenage children about their own occasional indulgence in a joint?

The alternative was to hurry round the house spraying air freshener, while their kids hung out of the upstairs windows in a parallel effort at concealment. Shock, horror! Afterwards, when we were invited for drinks with the local dignitaries who had hosted the programme, one of them informed me that my opinions were considerably too advanced for Berkshire. I did not mention that I went to university a few miles up the road in Reading, where cannabis and amphetamines were freely available.

What this anecdote demonstrates is the existence of two camps, who have very little to say to each other when it comes to drugs. One consists of people who have never been offered an illegal substance, would not try it if they were, and associate the words with opium dens, sinister drug barons and hopeless addiction - a picture that owes a lot to Thomas De Quincey and his drug-induced visions in Confessions of an English Opium-eater. The other has grown up with the widespread availability of recreational drugs, has occasionally tried them, and ranks cannabis lower in the scale of potential damage than alcohol or tobacco.

Members of the Government, with honourable exceptions such as Mo Mowlam, give the impression of being firmly in the first camp. This is odd, because the fortysomethings among them belong to a generation that collectively has more experience of drugs than any of its predecessors, with the exception of the Victorian period when laudanum was legally on sale. Nor do they seem to have noticed that more and more voices - including, last week, the leader writers of the Daily Telegraph - are beginning to argue that cannabis should be legalised, if only for an experimental period.

With an extraordinary coalition lining up against them, Government ministers are in the position of small children covering their ears with their hands and crying, in response to an unwelcome request, "I won't! I won't! I won't!". Their stance is neither realistic nor effective, as the backbench Labour MP Paul Flynn and Lady Runciman (whose report for the Police Foundation called for a reclassification of drugs offences) have both pointed out. It is also dishonest, lumping together substances as different in their effects as cannabis, Ecstasy and cocaine.

Most of us know that heroin is dangerous and cannabis isn't, and that the so-called slippery slope - soft drugs supposedly leading to the hard stuff - is more likely, not less, under prohibition. If cannabis were legalised, it is a racing certainty that the beleaguered tobacco companies would embrace this new market. Users could buy joints legally, with an assurance of quality control, from outlets with no interest in selling banned substances such as heroin. So why is the Government taking a stupid and ultimately doomed line on this subject?

One possibility, I think, is that it regards recreational drugs as a threat from an alien culture. It is not so long since a senior member of the Government told me, in all seriousness, that the Muslim Taliban in Afghanistan were trying to flood the Christian West with heroin and destroy it - a scenario that echoes De Quincey's fear in the first half of the 19th century of what he called "oriental leprosy". This association of drugs with the dangerous, exotic East is not likely to be dislodged by the knowledge that Cannabis sativa grows quite happily in the southern part of this country.

Another answer lies in the temperament of Tony Blair's inner circle. Much as they resent it, the Prime Minister and his cronies have been unable to deflect the charge that they are control freaks - failed control freaks in some matters, such as the London mayoral contest, but sterner even than the Daily Mail where drugs are concerned. Authoritarian by nature, they simply do not understand the attraction of substances such as cannabis; indeed it is hard to imagine many words that sit less easily together than "Jack Straw" and "Ecstasy", in either of its current meanings.

So what about the other lot? The Conservatives reacted to Lady Runciman's report by supporting the Government's line, finding themselves in danger once again of being out-toughed by New Labour. This is not opposition in the usual sense of the term, but a ghastly contest in which each party strives to convince voters that they are harder on drugs, asylum-seekers and social security cheats. Having made a dreadful mistake in electing William Hague as their leader, the Conservatives are waiting things out until the next general election, when their fortunes will almost certainly be revived by the Government's poor showing, as thousands of disgruntled Labour voters stay at home.

We are in a bizarre political phase, when parties get elected not on the strength of their manifestos but because of the unpopularity of the other side. New Labour is finally beginning to realise that its victory in 1997 was not the result of unquestioning adoration of Mr Blair but a visceral loathing of John Major and all his works. This means that the Conservatives do not have to put much effort into being Her Majesty's Opposition, other than ensuring that the Government does not outmanoeuvre them on the right.

With the exception of the gruesome Ann Widdecombe and Michael Portillo, the leader-in-waiting, most people have barely heard of the Tory front bench. When were you last impressed by a speech from Gary Streeter or Bernard Jenkin? Do you know what Andrew Lansley's job is? (Cabinet Office and policy renewal, whatever that means.) The Shadow Cabinet is most notable these days for its absences - heavyweights such as Kenneth Clarke and John Redwood, and the terminally Europhile John Gummer.

I spent last weekend at a conference in Istanbul where Mr Gummer spoke about ways of persuading big companies to clean up the environment, and his ideas are as radical as anything I've heard from New Labour. Of course, ideas are out of fashion at the moment, on both sides of the House of Commons, which is why Mr Blair's unexciting line-up has been matched by Mr Hague's deadly dull front bench. But politics should be about passionate disagreements and contrasting visions of the future, not an unedifying scrap over the same narrow piece of ground.

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