Rosie Boycott: A bad drugs policy that still wrecks half a million lives

Our cannabis campaign is now won, but it should be just a beginning
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The Independent Online

In truth, I never thought it would really happen. I never thought this government would even begin to relax the drugs laws. At least not so quickly and with such a broad reach – a first move that not only proposed that cannabis be declassified from Class B to Class C, but also opened the door for patients to obtain the drug on prescription.

Four years and four weeks ago to this day, when the IoS launched its campaign to decriminalise cannabis, the attitude of the Labour Party was one of extreme hostility. Alastair Campbell said we were middle-class journos acting out our student hippy days from the safety of Canary Wharf.

Even fellow hacks had a good laugh at our expense. I well remember meeting the late political correspondent Tony Bevins at a party at that year's Labour Party conference and being told that it was sheer madness: Labour would never, repeat never, do anything of the kind. At a lunch that same week, Gordon Brown did not disguise his sympathy for what we were doing, but it was clear that Labour's fear of Middle England and the Daily Mail was just too overwhelming for such a move to be countenanced.

But I never doubted the wisdom of what we were doing, nor could I ever forget just how popular it was with so many people. And not just, as Mr Campbell put it, with ageing hippies. Letters of support from policemen, teachers, prison wardens, doctors, academics and parents – not to mention their dope-smoking off-spring – filled our mail bags every day.

Virtually every message was the same: at last, someone is seeing sense. Finally, we were acknowledging the madness of a law that says that while tobacco and alcohol kill and are freely available, cannabis does no harm and is banned. Hardly any letters, e-mails or phone calls came in expressing opposition. We had touched a popular nerve.

The Government, in its early phase, was so keen to be seen to be hip and radical – remember all those meetings with pop stars at No 10? Behind the scenes, it was nothing of the sort. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, was proving himself as blinkered and as reactionary as any of his Tory predecessors. Any relaxation in the law seemed an increasingly remote possibility.

We marched, we organised a rally at Westminster, we petitioned – but all to no avail. Week after week, the paper highlighted stories of people whose lives had been ruined because they were caught in possession of a bit of weed. Some wanted it for their own pleasure, others needed it to relieve the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Still the Government would not budge. We held the law up to ridicule, comparing the dangers of drinking alcohol (Westminster is stuffed with bars) with puffs of dope.

We knew the Government was littered with hypocrites; we knew, unless they really were sub-human, that some of them must have smoked (and inhaled) and enjoyed it, in their youth. No, they persisted, not them.

Suddenly, without warning, the current Home Secretary David Blunkett has put aside Mr Straw's jack-boots and donned some comfier sandals. Even Labour insiders seem bemused by the proposed change. As far as I am concerned, this is one of the most popular announcements they've made in years. But dread fear of Middle England still grips ministers. So they snuck out the news of reclassification under the cheering that accompanied the IRA's momentous decision on decommissioning, or was it true that Mr Blunkett had been planning this for a couple of weeks?

I'll leave the theorising about Mr Blunkett's political motives to others. Maybe it was – just for once – a sane act by a decent bloke which in one swift move has shaken up and opened up our antiquated drug laws, paving the way for some good, honest talking at last.

Last year, cannabis related offences reached the 100,000 mark. At a minimum, each case takes up three hours of police time. So at a stroke, the proposal will liberate the police from this tiresome and pointless activity. He is asking his advisors to investigate new regulations governing medical use, so a wheelchair-bound MS sufferer is no longer going to face prosecution for growing marijuana on the kitchen windowsill.

But, Mr Blunkett, you will have to go further. One of the main arguments in our campaign was that dope was not, in any chemical sense, responsible for encouraging people towards harder drugs. That is as daft as saying one glass of wine turns a teenager into a vodka-guzzling alcoholic.

Buried in the middle of this extraordinary announcement was the almost more extraordinary news that doctors are to be encouraged to start prescribing pure heroin for addicts, a progressive and humane decision.

But wider policy on hard drugs is still a mess. The dealer who sells you the dope (still an illegal act) is also the criminal who'll sell you cocaine or heroin. And the criminals are only interested in one thing: money. The safety and well-being of the user matters not one bit: harder drugs mean bigger profits. This connection will only be broken when the sale and the possession of cannabis is fully legalised.

Even in Holland, which declared in 1976 that people would not be formally prosecuted for possession of small amounts of cannabis and then widened this softening of the law in 1980 when the sale of cannabis at coffee shops was introduced, hasn't resolved this problem. It is true that – contrary to the spin put out by anti-drug campaigners – the Dutch now have fewer people using cannabis than we do, fewer drug related deaths and a less serious use of hard drugs. But this crazy anomaly still exists. You can smoke it, but your dealer is a criminal. Can you imagine such a ludicrous state affairs existing with the supply of alcohol?

This lunacy is very, very dangerous. As Nick Davies pointed out in his brilliant Channel 4 series Drugs laws don't work, deaths from hard drugs like heroin are largely not from the heroin itself, but from the substances that unscrupulous dealers mix with it: anything from talcum powder to strychnine. Right now, we live in a world where the substances responsible for more misery, wasted lives, broken families and deaths are completely out of government control. They are in the hands of a small, vastly rich, incredibly powerful group of drug barons who have grown obscenely wealthy on the product of so much human misery, and illegality.

Prohibition has not just failed to stem the supply of drugs into our society: it has actively fuelled it. In 1968, there were fewer than 500 heroin addicts in Britain. Today, the Home Office says that there may be as many as 500,000. Think of that in terms of human sadness, and weep.

When the IoS campaign began, I was passionately against ever contemplating the idea of legalising harder drugs. Now I am not so sure. While the supply, content and control of drugs still remains in the hands of criminals who don't give a damn about the health and safety of our young people, we are living with a crisis of our own making. And this will carry on until the Government finally has the courage and sense to seize control of this vast, lethal and unbelievably lucrative industry.

There is only one way to do it. Drugs have to be legalised and controlled. Otherwise, the sorry state of affairs that now exists on the streets of our country will only get worse. Sorry, Mr Blunkett, one day you'll have to go even further. For all of us. Please don't wait too long.


Rosie Boycott was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1996 to 1998