Another ridiculous bout of reefer madness

I have never met a teenager who looked to the Government for moral guidance
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Reefer Madness is back. The 1936 US movie - loved by stoned students across the land - was made by a small church group as a serious attempt at instructing vulnerable teens about the "perilous menace" confronting them.

Reefer Madness is back. The 1936 US movie - loved by stoned students across the land - was made by a small church group as a serious attempt at instructing vulnerable teens about the "perilous menace" confronting them. A stern headmaster glares at the camera and explains the truth about "the smoke of hell". After one puff of "the devil's weed", we see even the most balanced John Boy Walton-lookalike mutate into a horny, violent, cackling weed freak, twitching psychotically and playing "evil" jazz music. A few spliffs later, he embarks on a vicious murder spree and ends up confined "where he belongs" - in a lunatic asylum.

Fast-forward 68 years. Kate Hoey, a Labour MP, writes a full-page article for a right-wing tabloid under the headline, "What will Britain be like when a whole generation is hearing voices?" She proceeds to link cannabis to murder and anarchy. Hoey is not an isolated loon - there has been a cascade of paranoid cannabis stories in the past week so strange that they made me wonder if there has been an outbreak of crack use among columnists.

So let's be clear: for the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time, cannabis is a harmless, pleasurable recreation, as pernicious as a bottle of wine. Personally, I find it relaxing but also prone to induce staggeringly boring non-conversations if smoked with anybody else.

This is not to deny that chronic cannabis use is as disastrous for individuals as alcoholism. An old friend of mine, after he was dumped by his girlfriend and ended up on a pointless, miserable university course, took to lighting up first thing in the morning and stayed stoned almost constantly. He went from being a witty, smart, engaged person to a listless flump, so slow that at times he seemed almost mentally disabled. It took a long time - and a lot of support - for him to break his habit, and he still doesn't feel like the person he was.

I know plenty more people whose memories were impaired by long-term, heavy cannabis use. For a very small minority already teetering close to psychosis, chronic cannabis use can even tip them into a psychotic episode (although attempts to say that cannabis therefore "causes" psychosis are unscientific nonsense).

But - like most people reading this column - I have also known alcoholics whose lives slumped and puked into chaos after they started drinking excessively. If I could disinvent alcohol and cannabis, I'd be tempted to do it. On a utilitarian calculation, the small incremental pleasures they give to a large number are probably outweighed by the vast amount of damage they do to a minority. But it's not an option. They cannot be wished away; they can only be managed. Prohibition is based on a denial of this basic reality - and dealing with cannabis addiction by prohibiting cannabis is as crazy as dealing with alcoholism by prohibiting alcohol.

The legalisation movement has moved on from the days when hippies waved huge marijuana leaves and encouraged "the straights" to have a drag. It is no longer about saying that drug use is, in some facile way, "good". We all know that drugs - from cannabis to tobacco to crack - have some terrible downsides. The only difference is that some of us also admit that prohibition does not solve these problems - it exacerbates them.

Sadly, the Government is not taking all this anti-cannabis flak because they have taken the decision to legalise the drug. (Even the Labour-dominated Home Affairs Select Committee has advised the Government to take the case for legalisation to the UN). Instead, they have chosen a mushy third way between legalisation and prohibition that few understand and nobody respects. Cannabis is still illegal, and jail sentences of up to two years can still be handed down for possession of cannabis. But there will be a "presumption against arrest": the police will most likely warn you and send you on your way if they find you with cannabis.

This leaves in place the worst element of prohibition: it hands a massive, profitable and ineradicable industry directly to gangs of criminals who wreak havoc across Britain's estates. Of course, cannabis dealers do not cause the same problems as crack or heroin-suppliers - but half of Britain's cannabis comes from Morocco. Only a long, ugly line-up of well-tooled gangs can export so much of a prohibited substance. Our government chooses effectively to hand them billions of pounds, when they could deprive them of their primary source of income over night by legalising.

Yet this has not been the thrust of the criticisms against the Government. Instead, many critics have focused on a fairly nonsensical argument. Labour rebels and Tories have moaned that the new law is sending out a "mixed message" to teenagers, who will now change from knowing that cannabis is Very Bad to thinking it is A Good Thing. Come on. There are many places teenagers look for guidance: friends, teachers, parents, celebrities. I have never met a teenager who looked to the Government for moral guidance. Never. Perhaps a teenage William Hague was so inclined; do we want a nation full of mini-Hagues? And anyway, the premise behind the "messages" argument is flawed. Drinking vodka is legal. Is the Government sending out a message that teenagers should swig a bottle or two on their way to school?

It is particularly weird that right-wing Tories have embraced this argument about the "message" involved in changing the law. Aren't they the ones who witter on constantly about distrusting government? The Tories have been lecturing us for decades about how we must not look to government for help with our wages or businesses - but now it seems we are supposed to look to the Government for vague moral instruction about cannabis.

Michael Howard was at least right when he told The Independent this week that there are only two realistic options: upholding prohibition to the full, or legalising drugs. Unfortunately, he does not follow this to its logical conclusion. There are between two- and five million regular cannabis users in Britain. Half of all 16-25-year-olds have smoked cannabis. If prohibition were enforced, we would have to prosecute half of our young people, more than quadruple the size of our prison population, and bring the entire criminal justice system to the point of collapse. Prohibition of cannabis is literally unenforcable, and everybody knows it. So - as Howard admits - there is only one sensible alternative.

The idea that the day after legalisation, Britain would collectively drop out and disappear in a haze of skunk smoke is absurd.

Everybody is free to drink, and we do not all sit around in our offices reeking of gin. Anybody who wants to get hold of cannabis today can, with the near-certainty they will not be punished. There might be a small increase in use (although I suspect this would quickly stabilise). This is a major drawback - but it has to be weighed against the major downsides of prohibition: the criminal gangs, the mockery of the law, the vast waste of police resources that could be spent catching burglars and rapists, and the devastation of the countries which supply our drugs but cannot tax their major export.

Wouldn't admitting this be better than retreating into stale propaganda about how cannabis will turn Britain into a vast lunatic asylum?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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