Let's End All This Reefer Madness

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by trexler, Jul 3, 2001.

  1. By Deborah Orr
    Source: Independent

    At the start of Labour's last term there was a huge flurry of libertarian talk about cannabis. Various ministers declared themselves to have inhaled when they were young and silly.
    Various other public servants suggested that maybe the biggest dangers of hashish were first that it was pointlessly criminalising lots of otherwise blameless citizens and second that it was needlessly clogging up an already stressed-out criminal justice system.

    As the years wore on, the issue dropped further and further down the agenda. A Police Federation report calling for decriminalisation was swept under the carpet, despite calls for a Royal Commission from all sorts of disparate quarters. The special adviser on drugs, Keith Hellawell, decided to take the "gateway drug" line, whereby smoking cannabis sets one on the rocky road to heroin addiction by osmosis (because of a meaningless survey of 100 people in New Zealand).

    More generally, a refusal by Government to engage with the subject – possibly connected to the revelation of the sumptuary proclivities of then home secretary Jack Straw's son – was so successful in shutting down the dialogue that, despite their ubiquity, their social significance, and their huge influence on our culture's behaviour, come the election, drugs were no longer an issue for debate.

    Now, freshly post-election, the issue has magically risen again, propelled into the spotlight by an ex-minister who had declared herself a midnight toker the first time around, but who was too isolated in power to make a dent in the war on drugs rhetoric, even when she found herself the cabinet minister responsible for it.

    Mo Mowlam, now out of parliament, is not alone in speaking out about the nuttiness of our attitudes to pot, and suggesting that things have to change. Mr Hellawell, in his newly downgraded advising role, has now, quite rightly, reneged on his "reefer madness" position. It's not that there aren't connections between using cannabis and using harder drugs, it's just that they are casual rather than causal.

    Someone game to try one illegal drug, is more likely to be game to try another. Someone already involved in purchasing class B drugs,like cannabis is more likely to come into contact with class A drugs, such as heroin, and so on. It's rather like saying that cereal purchasers are more likely to be ketchup purchasers, simply because they're the guys in the supermarket.

    Further, someone who has listened to drugs education programmes, but has tried cannabis anyway, is likely to have discovered that the sky doesn't fall in after a puff (for that you have to go to the trouble of doing a few big hot-knives). There is then little incentive to believe further rhetoric about the dangers of harder drugs, because if one set of scaremongering about one drug is found to be exaggerated, then why on earth shouldn't all the rest?

    Borough Commander Brian Paddick of the Metropolitan Police, may or may not see that all this is common sense. He is behind the south London pilot experiment which started yesterday, whereby people found in possession of cannabis will receive only a formal warning and the confiscation of their stash. His logic in taking such a step is governed primarily by what he sees happening to charges made by the police when they get to the courts.

    "It is an extremely bureaucratic and therefore expensive process to get a conviction. As these figures show, having gone through all that bureaucracy people are being fined between £20 and £50 or being conditionally discharged," he said. Mr Paddick is interested in freeing up his force to tackle more damaging drug use, of a kind that can sometimes lead to criminal activity, despair, death and the full gamut of misery and destruction that addiction can herald.

    David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is "interested in the experiment" for the same reasons. "This fits in entirely with the emphasis on placing absolute priority on class A drugs," he said.

    Certainly, the emphasis is not on class A drugs at the moment. While nine-tenths of drugs charges are possession cases, 75 per cent of these involve cannabis. Again, there are purely practical reasons for this. A wrap of cocaine disappears in minutes at a party, while a few Es are swallowed in the queue for the club. Crack and heroin are often consumed with equal promptness.

    But cannabis users drag their bag or their lump around with them for days or weeks on end, a spliff here, a toke there, a joint's-worth handed over to a friend. There's little voracious greed to keep on using till there's none left and everyone is lit up like Blackpool, but quite a bit more to talk expansively, have a small nap, eat some chocolate buttons, watch Father Ted videos and, in extreme and frightening cases, have a bit of a sing-song. Cannabis, as any punk would have told you in the Seventies, is in fact the drug of choice for quite mellow and gentle souls.

    In Brixton, the prime location for Mr Paddick's new approach, cannabis use is not even endemic, it's more or less compulsory. Every newsagent has king-size papers by the till, every ash-tray has a roach in it. It's apparently very simple to buy hash on the street, though speaking as someone who one bought half an individually wrapped liquorice allsort for £10 on Atlantic Road, I've never been too keen on that method.

    It would be wrong though to dismiss all of the criticism that is made of cannabis. For some people, dope can be a problem, causing paranoia or depression. These people tend to notice this quite quickly and avoid regular use of the drug. For others, the temptation to roll up upon waking up and keep puffing all day long, proves stronger than the need to go out and engage with the world.

    Like alcohol users or car users, cannabis users are not always in control. But since the illegal market is now so firmly established all over the country, the law as it stands does not protect the vulnerable minority from such pitfalls.

    And while Mr Paddick may or not believe that his experiment is likely to signal a wider sea-change in the general status of cannabis in our society, his relaxation of the rules has already been embraced with gusto.

    A couple of days after Mr Paddick's experiment was announced, the annual Free The Weed festival was staged in Brixton's Brockwell Park. Larger than previous festivals, and better organised, it hosted a large crowd stoned off their faces.

    Having fully embraced the coming relaxation of the law, perhaps a little over-eagerly, the assembled company were imbibing cannabis openly, and as they day progressed, selling it more and more flagrantly. In a large car park next to the park's cafe, a formidable cluster of police vans crouched over the event. Police patrolled in pairs, getting in more practice turning a blind eye than they'd so far had in their lives.

    According to Mr Paddick, once the dealing in crack and heroin and the related crime is dealt with, the present policy on cannabis will be re-adopted. Already all the signs are that this will be much, much easier said than done.

    E-Mail: d.orr@independent.co.uk

    The Fog of Hypocrisy Clouds The Debate On Drugs


    There will be few rational people who regard the Brixton police's experimentation with cannabis possession as anything other than sensible. Even the shadow Home Secretary, Ann Widdecombe, who famously destroyed her political career by proposing "zero tolerance" at last year's Conservative Party conference, could barely muster up any opposition to it when pressed to do so.

    Clearly, there are two things out of kilter here. One is the law; the other is the reaction of our politicians to drugs. Cannabis use is widespread among the younger generations, and not uncommon among the middle-aged; it will not be long before a majority of the country are, technically, criminals. The Brixton experiment – seeing what happens when possession of small quantities of cannabis is, in effect, ignored by the police – may help rationalise this most irrational of debates by giving us some genuine evidence, rather than the ludicrous assertions that routinely surround this issue.

    But why is leadership on this issue coming from the beleaguered police rather than from their political masters? We have in David Blunkett a Home Secretary whose attitude to cannabis possession is, at the very least, as severe as his predecessor, Jack Straw (who, it should be recalled, turned his son over to the police). Meanwhile, the Conservative Party is quietly flirting with a truly radical policy: legalisation. Much depends, of course, on who wins the leadership contest but there are indications that the Tories are prepared to make this bold gesture to underline how they have changed.

    Such a move would be welcome, since the worst aspect of this debate is the hypocrisy. Ann Widdecombe's credibility was destroyed by her Shadow Cabinet colleagues admitting to taking dope – Conservative MPs who have nonetheless supported the status quo for their entire parliamentary careers. In private, many MPs talk openly about the need for law reform; in public, most dismiss any such thing. What is that if it is not hypocrisy?

    It is not just Conservatives, of course. On Sunday, Mo Mowlam made clear her support for law reform. Would that she had had the honesty to do that when she was the cabinet minister responsible for the daft "war on drugs". Likewise, Keith Hellawell admits that cannabis might not be a gateway drug the second he is overthrown as the drugs tsar.

    The truth is that our policies towards cannabis are inconsistent, weak and wrong. Britain will never have the calm, considered debate that is needed until we grow up and recognise that it is not being "soft" to reconsider our approach. As a start, Mr Blunkett should show that he favours rational discussion above role-playing, and set up a Royal Commission on drugs.

    Note: 'Cannabis, as any punk would have told you in the Seventies, is in fact the drug of choice for quite mellow and gentle souls'

    Source: Independent (UK)
    Author: Deborah Orr
    Published: July 3, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
    Contact: letters@independent.co.uk
    Website: http://www.independent.co.uk/

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