John Harris: Don't let our booze-sodden culture go up in smoke

'There is a reason why alcohol, not cannabis, is our drug of choice. It makes us do things'

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On most of the issues that currently define the political map, I am proudly allied with the forces of leftie-liberalism. Long ago, I went on an anti-Clause 28 march; I was thrilled to see the UK belatedly acknowledging the notion of inviolable rights; I feel sorry for foxes. But when it comes to decriminalisation of cannabis, I jump the ideological fence. Ann Widdecombe may have taken things a bit too far, but I'm positioned just to the left of her (next to Jack Straw, I suppose).

On most of the issues that currently define the political map, I am proudly allied with the forces of leftie-liberalism. Long ago, I went on an anti-Clause 28 march; I was thrilled to see the UK belatedly acknowledging the notion of inviolable rights; I feel sorry for foxes. But when it comes to decriminalisation of cannabis, I jump the ideological fence. Ann Widdecombe may have taken things a bit too far, but I'm positioned just to the left of her (next to Jack Straw, I suppose).

This seems to put me in a tiny minority today. Everyone from Lewis Wolpert, the biologist, to Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, the elderly ex- Sunday Telegraph editor, is confessing to smoking dope, in the quest for a change in the law.

Looking back, my weed-centric opinions started to take shape when I met the King of the Dope-Smokers. I was in Amsterdam, on the first stop-off of a fairly nightmarish InterRail trip. Being 18 and keen to indulge in what Rimbaud romantically termed "the rational derangement of the senses", my friends and I had set our sights on immersing ourselves in the cannabis-based subculture that is, thankfully, the unique preserve of the Netherlands. In keeping with the quest, we were staying in a campsite that fancied itself as the world headquarters of weed.

That was where we met him. Keith was from Halifax, and he and his two female friends came to the campsite every year. We asked if he could recommend good places to buy some "gear", whereupon he disappeared into his tent and came back with a large exercise book he called his "Mellow Pages". He then spent five minutes burbling on about Acapulco Gold, Moroccan red and some place where you could buy marijuana à la pick'n'mix counter at Woolworths.

He was far from evil, but what a very tedious man he was. Dope-smoking defined his being (he said he was a poet, but we never got to read any of his verses), though why he set such store by it remained a mystery. When we were honoured enough to share the herbal sacrament with him, he got all snooty about the fact that we got the giggles and spent an hour in silent contemplation.

I have met many people such as Keith: there was a trainee doctor who went on at inordinate length about his love of "three-skinners" - joints made using an extra cigarette paper - and a houseful of Scottish students who would tell how one of their number had got the "munchies", gone to the 24-hour garage and, like, forgotten what flavour of crisps he wanted, arf, arf. And, of course, as a former rock journalist, many is the time I have had to decipher the incoherent rambling of wannabe superstars.

Such is the dope-smoking demi-monde: a horrid place, populated by lethargic do-nothings and festooned with stash-tins featuring aliens saying deeply unfunny things such as: "Take me to your dealer", and rubbish Bob Marley posters. We can be thankful that the drug's illegality at least places one or two minor obstacles in the way of any aspirant newcomer.

Unfortunately, the furore surrounding Ann Widdecombe's bizarre proposals has proved once and for all that the arguments once propagated only by boring hippies are now defining the media consensus. Everyone spouts the same guff: dope is less harmful than alcohol, it's conducive to social harmony, look at all those happy Dutch people et cetera, et cetera. Even The Daily Telegraph seems to be meekly shuffling into line.

There is a Darwinian reason why alcohol rather than cannabis has long been the Western world's drug of choice. It makes us do things. It melts away emotional constipation, enabling shy souls to find partners. In turn, we reproduce, and society marches onward, occasionally hobbling home on a Friday night. Yes, some people get punched on the way, but I suspect that, were their booze supply to be withdrawn, most practitioners of alcohol-related violence would still hit people.

The pro-weed lobby's utopia would be a very different place. The pub would be supplanted by the dreaded coffee-shop, full of people like Keith, sat in zombie-like silence. Because of the all-pervading quiet, culture would be non-existent (unless you count watching Animal House for the 19th time). People would tumble into bed alone, rather than jumping in with someone they'd met a few hours earlier. You can call that social harmony if you like, but it's a bit like referring to death as "metabolic calm".

I don't want a cannabis crackdown; I'm aware that the police should be seeing to burgled houses rather than red-eyed fools staggering out of house parties. But dope's increasingly nominal illegality at least keeps people in touch with such existential trifles as self-awareness, intellectual vitality and the need to get out of bed every morning. I speak from experience: I had a weed phase at university, but it was curtailed by creeping paranoia about being caught and kicked out. That's probably why I'm writing this article rather than lying on a sofa wondering how come I'm 30 already.

Dutch readers may take umbrage, but think about it this way: Amsterdam may be a teeming, centuries-old metropolis and admirably popular tourist destination - but where are all the internationally renowned authors, pop groups and comedians? Answer: sitting in coffee-shops, their talent and drive blunted by spliffs.

Were this a speech, I'd now request the playing of the national anthem, at slowly increasing volume. Let us raise our glasses to booze! To thought! To great art! And endless police cautions! Unfortunately, I have a hangover today, so I'd better go for a bloody Mary.

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