Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Some old hippies are still wedded to weed
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The Independent Online

"I've been a reader of your paper from the beginning," writes Andy Sheppard from Sandwell, West Midlands. "The best thing you ever did," he goes on, "was the Cannabis Campaign – I went on the 'IoS' march and really thought you were going to help turn the tide. But last week's front page alleging a link between cannabis and crime was a let-down – turning on its head everything you once stood for. Kids have long smoked cannabis – and for even longer have been demonised as criminals, but that does not prove a link between cannabis and crime. I count myself as middle class and have been smoking cannabis for more than 40 years. I have suffered no ill-effects and have never committed a crime. It's gutless to turn your backs on something you once believed in, just for a cheap bit of ingratiation with the politically correct establishment of the day."

Phew! There's a simple answer, Mr Sheppard. That was then and now is now. Like you, I went on the march and believed there was a huge libertarian issue at stake. But the growing body of evidence against regular cannabis use is overwhelming, particularly in its effect on our mental health. The Royal College of Psychiatrists points out that long-term use of the drug doubles the risk of developing a psychotic episode or long-term schizophrenia, and that teenagers are especially vulnerable. And it's not as though we didn't warn you of our change of stance. A few months ago, we printed one of our biggest front-page headlines – "Cannabis: an apology" – setting out our position.

The views of newspapers are not set in stone. Nor should they be – otherwise we'd still be publishing ads that claim Guinness is good for you or that Craven A cigarettes ease a sore throat. Of course, it's good to stick to principles. This newspaper was among a tiny handful in the media to campaign against the Iraq war, and we've stuck to our view while all around us have been changing theirs. The same applies to global warming – our environment editor, Geoffrey Lean, was among the first to identify the magnitude of the problem, while others scoffed. But the occasional volte-face is perfectly healthy. We once urged our readers to "vote green" at a general election – but that doesn't mean we are likely to do so again. And we were wrong in our initial opposition to London's congestion charge, just as we were in our endorsement of cannabis.

You are clearly an old hippie, Mr Sheppard – and, I suspect, so are many other readers who have written to me in the same vein. I can just imagine the spliffs being passed around in your dining room after the Delia Smith chocolate pudding. You are all entitled to your opinion. But would you encourage your kids to take up the habit, knowing that there is even the slightest risk to their health? I bet not.

Corrections and clarifications

Further to our article of 2 September, Dr Simone Lester has asked us to make it clear that she has always denied the unproven allegations that she tried to hit and hurled verbal abuse at a steward after a football match, and that in a subsequent argument with police she called an officer "a poor peasant" and "worse than Jade Goody".

Email: readerseditor@independent.co.uk

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