Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jul 2001
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Section: COMMENT
Author: Melanie Phillips


What on earth is going on? Suddenly, Britain is in the grip of a frenzied 
campaign to legalise cannabis and even all drugs. In Lambeth, south London, 
the police commander announces to great fanfare that people will no longer 
be arrested for cannabis possession but will be let off with a warning.

Mo Mowlam, Peter Lilley and The Daily Telegraph all call for cannabis to be 
legalised. Sir Keith Morris, our former man in Colombia, says legalisation 
should apply to all drugs. Meanwhile, a much lionised television series 
says heroin should be legalised on the grounds that the drug is safe and it 
is the criminal law that kills people.

Without exception these arguments are intellectually dishonest, 
disingenuous or terrifyingly irresponsible. Yet they are gaining critical mass.

Lilley claims that the illegality of cannabis means users are more likely 
to be thrust into the arms of hard drug pushers because all drugs are 
available only through the same illegal channels. But this is not true. 
Many dealers sell cannabis alone; much of it is sold on from one user to 

He cites Holland's effective decriminalisation of cannabis as a roaring 
success. Is he mad? The Dutch experiment is a disaster. It has turned 
Holland into the drug baron of the West; its young people are now the 
biggest users in Europe of cocaine and ecstasy; use of heroin and cannabis 
has risen and there has been an explosion of drug-related crime.

He claims the alleged health risks of cannabis are "either bogus or 
exaggerated". He bases this on one study in The Lancet. But that study says 
cannabis can cause anxiety and panic; damage to attention, memory and 
physical co-ordination; increased risk of psychosis; greater risk of 
malignant disease; and dependency caused by "inability to abstain from or 
control cannabis use".

Just what has to be proved before Lilley concludes that harm is not "bogus 
or exaggerated"? How can he minimise the dangers to others and to society 
from the psychosis, poor educational or work performance or harm to unborn 
children that cannabis can cause? In his "year's research" how has he 
missed the thousands of studies detailing this damage? Heather Ashton, a 
pharmacology professor, says memory loss and cognitive deficits can persist 
years after stopping cannabis use; there is far greater risk of developing 
cancer; it can precipitate schizophrenia; it decreases the sperm count; it 
can produce hallucinating flashbacks and it is linked with violent crime.

To say the war against cannabis has been lost because it is illegal is a 
sick joke. Britain is swamped by a glut of cannabis, as a result of which 
the price has dropped through the floor. The principal reason is an abrupt 
change of direction by Customs and Excise. This makes a nonsense of 
government hints that cannabis may now drop down the list of drug 
enforcement priorities. It has already happened and the results are 

According to Keith Hellawell, the (now sidelined) drugs czar, government 
policy between 1998 and 1999 changed at his prompting. While all drug use 
was still to be reduced, priority was to be given to reducing heroin and 
cocaine use. So performance indicators were set for heroin and cocaine 
seizures; none was set for class B drugs such as cannabis.

The rationale, says Hellawell, was that with limited resources hard drugs 
should have priority. But he never intended customs officers to stop all 
specific operations against cannabis. Customs and Excise says it will 
"continue to investigate cannabis cases where this will make a material 
impact and to detect and prosecute cannabis smugglers".

David Raynes, an assistant chief investigation officer for Customs and 
Excise, who retired a year ago, says these are weasel words. From early 
last year, he says, all targeted investigations of large-scale cannabis 
traffickers were stopped. Customs officers were formally discouraged from 
launching the operations against cannabis that were intended to stop the 
trade. The only cannabis seizures made were what they discovered during 
other investigations. Many customs and police officers, says Raynes, were 

The result has been a dramatic fall in cannabis seizures and a flood of the 
drug onto the streets. This has produced a desperately dangerous situation. 
For all drugs predispose users to try other drugs. That does not mean 
everyone will do so, but use of cannabis or ecstasy or amphetamines makes 
it much more likely that hard drugs will be tried.

Lilley says cannabis isn't a "gateway" drug. But he failed to report the 
New Zealand study showing that one joint a week makes people 60 times more 
likely to use hard drugs; or another study showing that one in four 
cannabis users goes on to heroin or cocaine.

Far from the "war on drugs" having failed, we've never properly had one. 
The Lambeth "experiment" is not new at all. It merely replicates what 
officers in the Met and elsewhere have been doing for years: issuing 
derisory warnings for cannabis use, effectively turning a blind eye. 
Magistrates refuse to shut down all-night clubs fuelling the drugs trade on 
the grounds that this would hurt their city's economy; drugs education in 
schools is weak or ambivalent; and a lot of influential people are saying 
the law is an ass.

By contrast, in Sweden, where a mere 9% have tried drugs compared with our 
34%, drug use is kept low through tough enforcement and prevention 
policies. In the 1960s Sweden decriminalised amphetamines and produced an 
epidemic. It has since reverted to its tough approach.

It does not just enforce fines for possession and prison for large-scale 
possession and supply. It has criminalised drug use itself. The police test 
the blood and urine of suspected users, and if they come up positive they 
are fined. If teachers suspect that pupils have taken drugs, they call in 
the police and social workers. Against this background, treatment and drug 
education policies work because all the signals are pointing in the same 

Of course, we have lost the war against the Colombian drug cartels. The war 
against supply can never be won. We have been fighting on the wrong front. 
The main target should be to reduce demand through Swedish-type prevention 
and enforcement policies - the very approach we refuse to take.

But law enforcement relies on popular consent and that is precisely what 
the present campaign is intended to undermine. Promoted by organisations 
backed by billions of dollars to pump out mind-twisting propaganda, it is 
capturing the gullible, the opportunistic, the malign and those for whom it 
would be a grave social embarrassment for their drug-puffing, pill-popping 
children to gain a criminal record.

The Conservatives may be about to abandon those who strive to be 
law-abiding. But it's not enough for the Labour government to resist the 
explicit legalisation tide. David Blunkett must grasp that the drug war is 
being lost through the ignorance, cowardice and demoralisation of our law 
enforcement agencies and governing class. He should visit Sweden, tear up 
this failed policy and start again.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom