Social change is best done in small, reversible steps

Andreas Whittam Smith on the legalisation of marijuana
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The Independent Online
A satisfactory inquiry into cannabis, its uses and abuses, and the role of the law, could be rapidly completed. There is no need for the cumbersome machinery of a Royal Commission to re-do the extensive research which has already been carried out into all drugs and their varying effects upon health, behaviour and crime. The latest issue of the American magazine, Science, for instance, contains a thorough analysis of the results of the Dutch experiment in liberalising the law on cannabis, both as regards possession and dealing.

The many studies like this into every aspect of the subject could be collated and summarised without much difficulty and in double quick time. The Government should undertake this useful task of providing a briefing for the public; such a document would be a public service not a policy initiative.

The questions, at least, are clear. What are the effects of cannabis on the user? Does it lead to anti-social behaviour? Is it addictive? How does it compare to alcohol? Does it provide a gateway to the use of hard drugs? How much success has government policy had during the past fifteen years? What have been the costs of this policy? What can we learn from Spain and Italy, where decriminalisation has also taken place, and from the different policies adopted by US states, as well as from Holland? What are the medicinal uses of cannabis?

The answers will be found to lack precision. A Rochdale doctor told a recent conference of the British Medical Association that cannabis had unpleasant effects, such as distorting perception, reducing vigilance and causing apathy and indifference. But another study declares that cannabis is a fairly mild hallucinogenic or euphoriant. Are the two saying the same thing and do they imply that cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol?

Some of this can be sorted out. But not all. Any inquiry would be left with a series of answers that fall into wide ranges of probability. Nonetheless, the findings, taken together, would support the case for decriminalisation. That is why I think that the best approach that the Government could take would be to try to make progress by tiny steps, starting immediately. The poll in the Independent on Sunday shows that public opinion would be in favour. If ever there was a problem demanding an application of British pragmatism, this is it. I define a "tiny" step as one which could be reversed without embarrassment

The new drugs "czar", for instance, whose appointment is due to be announced by the Prime Minister tomorrow, will no doubt observe that police policy towards possession of cannabis varies across the country. In some places, people are arrested and charged, in other areas they are only warned. It would be useful to compare and contrast the effects of these different approaches. Indeed for this reason it might even be advisable to maintain this diversity for some time. Then, having gained confidence from this experiment, as I assume it would, the government would be able to state that national policy would be for the police to issue warnings rather than charges except in flagrant cases. If such a policy appeared to work safely, having tried it out for, say, two years, then it would not be such a big step to decriminalise possession altogether - except of commercial amounts. At this stage, dealing would still be a criminal offence.

It is in this pragmatic spirit that the Secretary of State for Health, Frank Dobson, made a useful contribution to the debate last week. He said that he would look at the case for amending existing legislation so that cannabis could be prescribed by doctors for certain conditions, particularly for people with multiple sclerosis. California has already taken this step. The drug helps reduce tremors and spasms and it eases movement. Aids sufferers likewise claim that it improves their appetite.

If these various measures worked well, then the next move would be more of a leap than a step. The Government might well pause before taking it. For it would involve removing the trade in cannabis from the streets, from pubs and clubs and from criminal gangs and giving licences for its distribution to approved outlets. I am not sure that the United Kingdom would want to follow the Dutch pattern of allowing some 1,500 "coffee houses" to deal in small quantities. It might be that high-street pharmacies would be more suitable, seeing that their staff already have the appropriate training.

But we would do well to insist that licensed distributors follow the five rules that Dutch coffee shop dealers have to observe. As with alcohol, no sales to minors. That is obvious enough. Likewise no public disturbances, something for which British public houses can also lose their licences. A further rule is - no advertising. This is extremely important. The evidence from the years following the ending of prohibition of alcohol in the United States in 1933 is that it was the gradual increase in advertising that lifted consumption rather than de-regulation itself. There was no steep jump when the law was relaxed.

The Dutch also prohibit licensed dealers in cannabis from selling hard drugs. For the Dutch, this is a crucial issue. In the unregulated, criminal market, cannabis is generally sold alongside hard drugs. But applying a licensing system to cannabis actually breaks the link. The Dutch believe that separating the soft- and hard-drug markets reduces the so- called "gateway" effect. The final Dutch safeguard is to set limits on the amounts of cannabis that can be supplied in each transaction and the amount that can be held in stock. The thresholds are set at low levels.

What I am arguing is that legalising the supply and consumption of cannabis should not be seen as a big-bang decision. Rather than endlessly debating the grand issues and coming to no conclusion, it would be better to get going with limited initiatives, measure the results, be ready to turn back if the consequences are unfavourable; and, otherwise, keep pushing ahead. Perhaps it would take as long as five years to reach legalisation of possession and another five to bring in a licensing system for suppliers. No matter; it is the direction that counts rather than the speed.