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Why we believe it is time to decriminalise cannabis

Rosie Boycott,Editor
Saturday 27 September 1997 23:02 BST

I Rolled my first joint on a hot June day in Hyde Park. Summer of `68. Just 17. Desperate to be grown-up. I'd found a strategic tree overlooking the Serpentine bowl. A few weeks later I'd return to listen to the Fleetwood Mac playing a free concert. I had a fingernail-sized lump of hashish, a box of Swan Vestas matches, a broken Benson and Hedges and three small Rizla cigarette papers clumsily melded together. Oh, the glamour of Rizlas. Oh, the illicit thrill of the banal vocabulary - a deal, a joint, a spliff. All deriving, like Jagger's music, from a remote black American culture I knew little about. Yet it had conquered me, and the entire youth generation. My first smoke, a mildly giggly intoxication, was wholly anti-climatic. The soggy joint fell apart. I didn't feel changed. But that act turned me - literally - into an outlaw. I was on the other side of the fence from the police - or the fuzz, as we used to call them. So were a great many of my generation.

When Mick Jagger was heavily fined thousands of pounds after a punitive trial for possession of cannabis, the conservative and middle-aged thought he deserved it. But William Rees-Mogg, then the editor of the Times, was unhappy at what he called, in a legendary leader, this "primitive" impulse to "break a butterfly on a wheel". To everyone's surprise, he published a full-page advertisement dedicated to the proposition that "the law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice". It contained the names of 50 prominent people from Jonathan Miller to a pushy young MP called Jonathan Aitken. They launched a short-lived campaign advocating the decriminalisation of marijuana - as cannabis was universally known in those remote days of Harold Wilson's premiership. They wanted cannabis off the dangerous drugs list: "Possession ... should be either permitted or at most considered a misdemeanour punishable by a fine of not more than ten pounds."

In his Times leader the future Lord Rees-Mogg had identified something he called "the new hedonism". He said that where it was in conflict with sound traditional values it was necessary to ensure that these values included "tolerance and equity".

Here was establishment-speak for the common cries of "Mick's been made a scapegoat", or, less stridently, "Cannabis is a harmless component of contemporary relaxation". The pro-cannabis campaigners backed their demands with weighty medical evidence. No one took any notice.

Convictions for cannabis possession went on rising, from 18,213 in 1985 to 68,598 in 1995. Dealers grew rich by offering for sale not just cannabis, but a cocktail of drugs. The distinction between what was and wasn't safe was most decidedly blurred. Greed entered the picture, and hysteria entered the debate. Cannabis might lead a person to hard drugs - yes, but mainly because the same person selling you the one - cannabis - will also offer the other - heroin or cocaine. There is no physical evidence that says smoking cannabis creates the desire for "harder" drugs.

The irony, of course, is that one of the world's most dangerous drugs, the one responsible for more crime, more lost hours at work, more broken families, more violence, more ghastly heartbreak, is freely available in every supermarket and corner store in the land. If alcohol is a tiger, then cannabis is merely a mouse. Alcohol is fine for those who can handle it. As a recovered alcoholic, I have experienced the terrible consequence of booze. Everyone has probably known someone whose life - or family - has been blighted by alcohol, heroin or cocaine. But they'll know more people damaged by drink. Where alcohol is aggressive, cannabis is passive.

Certainly, no one has ever been disfigured by a joint. The truth is that most people I know have smoked at some time or other in their lives. They hold down jobs, bring up their families, run major companies, govern our country, and yet, 30 years after my day out in Hyde Park, cannabis is still officially regarded as a dangerous drug. That amazes me as much as seeing the Rolling Stones, their combined ages easily topping 200, cavorting in Chicago as if not a day has passed.

Since my first joint, I've smoked a good many more, although I hardly smoke at all nowadays. The habit has given up on me. But I don't see why people who share my earlier enthusiasm should be branded as criminal. Isn't it time we faced up to the facts, and ended this hypocrisy?

Campaign supporters

Add your support to the campaign. Next week we will print the names of readers who back our appeal to decriminalise cannabis.

Steve Abrams, Sixties cannabis campaigner

Tariq Ali, writer and polemicist

Marquess of Bath

Professor Colin Blakemore, FRS, Physiology, Oxford; President, British Neuroscience Association

Louis Blom-Cooper QC

Richard Branson

Dr Colin Brewer, MB, BS, MRCS, LRCP, DPM, MRC Psych

Howard Brookes-Baker, publisher, Burke's Peerage

Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press

Beatrix Campbell, broadcaster and writer

Ron Clarke, ex DCI, Greater Manchester Police

Max Clifford, publicist

Caroline Coon, artist

Professor John Davies, Pyschology, Strathclyde

Philip Delgano, Glasgow Caledonian University

Keith Dolan, lawyer, Offenbachs and Co

Brian Eno, musician, record producer, artist

Charles Finch, head of William Morris, Europe

Paul Flynn MP

Patrick French, historian and traveller

Pam Gems, playwright

Mildred Gordon, former MP, Bow and Poplar.

Peter Greenaway, film director

Dr Judy Greenwood, consultant psychiatrist, Edinburgh

Professor Nick Heather, consultant and clinical psychologist, Newcastle

Nick Hornby, writer

Phillip Knightley, journalist and writer

Danny Kushlick, director of Transform

Dr Robert Lafever, MA, MB, BChir, ARCM Director of the PROMIS Recovery Centre Rev Ken Leech, community theologian at St Botolph's Church, Aldgate

Mike Leigh, film director

Don Letts, film director

Dr Jeffrey Marks, MB, CHB, MDChB, FRC Psych

Dr John Marks, psychiatrist and Chairman, Drug Policy Reform Group.

Eamonn McCann, Irish writer and journalist

Alan McGee, Chairman, Creation Records

Tim Murphy, law lecturer, University College Cork

Michael Noble, lecturer in applied social studies, Oxford

Dr Freek Polak, consultant psychiatrist, Amsterdam

Jim Pollard, freelance writer and former editor of Arthritis News

Andrew Puddephatt

Professor Martin Pugh, historian, Newcastle University

Dr Philip Robson, consultant psychiatrist and senior clinical lecturer,

Warneford Hospital

Anita Roddick OBE

Richard Rogers, architect

Professor Steven Rose, director of Brain and Behaviour Research Group at the Open University

James Sandham, MA MSC, lecturer in applied social studies, Oxford

Nicholas Saunders, writer

Mary Ann Seighart, journalist

Stephen Shaw, Director of the Prison Reform Trust

David Sherwan, Glasgow Caledonian University

Peter Tatchell, gay activist

Beverley Thompson, NACRO

Auberon Waugh, editor, Literary Review

Janet Weitz, Chairman of FDS International Ltd

Fay Weldon, author

Kevin Williamson, author

A N Wilson, author and literary editor, the Evening Standard

Richard Wilson, actor

Michael Winner, film director and columnist

The Marchioness of Worcester

What they say ...

Sir Paul Mccartney: "I support decriminalisation. People are smoking pot anyway and to make them into criminals is wrong. It's when you're in jail that you really become a criminal. That's where you learn all the tricks."

Richard BransoN: "I`d like to see the government back a programme of research into the medical properties of cannabis and I do not object to its responsible use as a recreational relaxant."

JON SNOW: "We need a full-blown public enquiry into drugs and criminality. The law is an ass where drugs are concerned."

Anita Roddick OBE: "The current policies on cannabis make no sense. Our government needs to spend less time trying to regulate individual behaviour and more time trying to guide institutions into responsible behaviour. Decriminalisation will help."

UNDER the terms of the Misuse of Drugs Act, drugs are classified into A,B, or C categories, writes Graham Ball. Offences involving class A drugs (strong opiates, heroin, morphine and cocaine) carry the heaviest penalties, class C the lightest. Herbal cannabis (everything except seeds and stalks), cannabis resin, and cannabis oil are in class B of the Act. Other class B drugs include amphetamines and barbiturates.

The maximum penalty for trafficking in class B drugs is 14 years' imprisonment plus a fine while the maximum penalty for merely possessing them is five years' imprisonment plus a fine. Maximum penalties are rarely imposed: less than 10 per cent of those found in possession of cannabis are sentenced to immediate (as opposed to suspended) imprisonment.

It is illegal to grow, produce, possess or supply the drug to another person. It is also an offence to allow your house to be used for growing, supplying or smoking cannabis. The most notable development in recent years has been the growing use of cautioning by the police. Those receiving cautions for cannabis possession have risen from 1 per cent of cases in 1981 to 45 per cent in 1992. If cannabis were no longer an arrestable offence under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act the UK would have to withdraw from the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs. But the aims of the convention, according to one UN lawyer, are to prevent trafficking, and not to force the signatories into making personal possession a criminal offence.

So for practical reasons a government would probably choose to move to decriminalisation prior to full legalisation. Decriminalisation involves maintaining criminal penalties on distribution and supply but allows for possession for personal use. Legalisation would involve legalising supply, possibly by licence as in the case of alcohol retail.

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