Pubdate: Fri, 23 Jan 2004
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd
Author: Simon Jenkins


Warning. Drugs can seriously damage your political health. They induce
hallucinations of potency and fantasies of control. After prolonged
indulgence, acute moral confusion can ensue. Politicians suffering
from obsessive timidity begin to lose touch with reality. Their brains
get like marzipan. Withdrawal is agony.

Nothing better illustrates this syndrome than yesterday's row over the
reclassification of cannabis. The row has brought out a rare best in
the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and a worst in his old foe,
Michael Howard.

Under Tony Blair, all contributions to political debate begin with a
mind-numbing platitude. If speaking on Iraq you must start: "I, of
course, believe Saddam Hussein is a vicious, genocidal monster who
killed millions of innocent children." On penal reform you must begin:
"I believe that nasty, sadistic baby-killers and mass murderers
should be locked away for life -- meaning life."

Likewise on drugs, you must declare them evil or no one will listen.
All drugs affect the brain and are likely to be harmful. For certain
vulnerable young people cannabis can induce addiction and may
correlate with mental illness. I served for two years on the 2000
Police Foundation committee on drugs law and have no doubt on this.
Cannabis is best avoided. May we now continue?

Classification under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act was a modest attempt
to grade illegal narcotics by relative harm. This was to guide the
police, the courts and the public. A Home Office committee, composed
not of dopehead hippies but of reputable doctors and pharmacologists,
watches the science and reviews the classes.

Opinion has long held that Ecstasy, of which millions of tablets are
consumed each year, should not be in Class A alongside heroin, but in
Class B. Meanwhile cannabis should not be in Class B with amphetamines
but in Class C. New and more powerful cannabis variants such as skunk
may merit Class B, but the more reason for accurate class

Advice has been ignored. Fear of the right-wing press has prevented
Home Secretaries from reclassification in the light of evolving
science. This inertia continued even after the Mail and Telegraph
groups argued for change in the late-1990s. Politicians thought the
"signal" sent by reclassification would be worse than doing nothing.
As a result the classes are now absurd and ignored.

Mr Blunkett has finally decided to reclassify cannabis, yet has
achieved almost nothing. Before doing so -- presumably to head off the
right wing -- he quietly altered the penalties attaching to Class C,
making them similar to Class B. Possession of cannabis thus remains
subject to arrest and imprisonment. So Mr Blunkett has the worst of
both worlds. People think he has gone soft on cannabis when he has
not. Cannabis remains illegal. The only difference is public confusion
and variations in local police guidelines.

Controlling youth consumption of drugs is no different from
controlling adult consumption of nicotine (which should be Class B) or
alcohol (which should be Class A). Both are governed by knowledge,
market price and availability. Since all may be harmful all should
come under state regulation. Drugs do not at present. The collapse of
regulation resulting from the failure of the 1971 Act has led to a

Nothing demonstrates this more glaringly than that Britain's most
intensive group of drug users are inside Her Majesty's prisons, care
of Mr Blunkett. It is incredible that he and his forebear, Mr Howard,
dare to lecture parents on family drugs discipline when they could not
restrain their charges despite having them under lock and key 24 hours
a day. The hypocrisy is stupendous.

Experts now say that cannabis is more freely available in Britain than
anywhere in Europe, while prices are tumbling. Drugs are on sale in
every city-centre street, club and school lavatory. A lie must
therefore be nailed. To support the status quo is no longer to be
anti-drugs. It is to tolerate a trade in which dealers are free to
extend the 10 per cent hard drugs market into the 90 per cent cannabis
one. To support the status quo is not only to support anarchy. It is
to appease a raging hard-drugs culture. Sixty per cent of the prison
population is now "drug-related", 90 per cent in the case of women.
The cost is staggering. While the drug demand of some middle-class
children may be slightly restrained by fear of the law, this effect is
swamped by the prevalence and profit of illicit supply. Drug
distribution touches every aspect of the urban economy, so much so
that many poorer districts would suffer acute hardship were drugs to
go on legal sale.

The drugs economy is the single biggest handicap to social cohesion in
Britain. It blights law and order, family policy, mental health,
truancy and gun control. By seducing consumers from highly taxed
alcohol and cigarettes, drugs lose the Exchequer billions. Nor can
public opinion or the press be blamed. Both now widely support reform
of the 1971 Act. Parents want their children educated about drugs and
treated for them, not sent to prison and ruined for life.

Drugs must some day be legalised and controlled. In the meantime,
policy must at least make sense. The Conservative Party demands that
the drugs advisory committee no longer consider aligning penalties to
harm, only to politics. The party flirted with sanity under William
Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. Now it is telling millions of young
people that a Tory vote is a vote to put them and their friends in
prison. They might prefer Mr Blair's top-up fees to that.

Mr Blunkett this week decided to spend UKP1 million on advertising
against cannabis. A similar sum is being withdrawn from the
Government's school-based anti-drugs campaign. As The Observer
revealed last week, half the 150 drugs advisers of which the
Government boasted two years ago are being laid off. They have lost
their publicity value. The media are to profit by UKP1 million and the
schools to lose.

Most Britons under 45 have experienced cannabis and seem to regard it
as a hazard of youth. Most Britons over 45 cannot handle the
subject.They are torn between wanting drug users hung, drawn and
quartered and finding it incomprehensible that their own otherwise
normal offspring should be "criminalised" by the law. Jack Straw as
Home Secretary was a ferocious criminaliser. But he raced to the
police station and grovelled when his own son was arrested on a drugs

Most European states have more successful drug policies than Britain.
The Netherlands has over a decade of experience with "executive
legalisation" and now has lower cannabis consumption than Britain, as
well as declining heroin addiction. Different policies apply in
France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Portugal, but all are
experimenting with solutions that wholly elude Britain.

The global drugs trade kills far more people than terrorism. Yet it
receives scant priority. The West's regime change in Afghanistan may
not have stamped out al-Qaeda but it liberated the opium market which
the Taleban had ruthlessly suppressed. Ninety per cent of Britain's
heroin now comes from that country. The street price has fallen 20 per
cent in a year. Meanwhile, 60 tonnes of home-grown cannabis in the
form of Sativex, to relieve sufferers from cancer and multiple
sclerosis, are waiting in the stores of GW Pharmaceuticals. Ministers
must overcome a state of frozen political terror for them to be put on

Mr Blair's radicalism is a sham. He appointed a drugs czar but found
his mere presence an embarrassment and sacked him. Such political
taboos are not new. They once embraced gin-drinking, homosexuality,
prostitution and off-course betting. My parents were appalled at the
thought of a betting shop on every corner. It would surely lead to
"addiction". Somehow they got over it.

The same must be done with drugs, all drugs. They must be removed from
criminal distribution and their sale controlled and taxed like
nicotine and alcohol. Such a proposal is not ideal, merely vital.
Drugs must be harder to get and more expensive. Serious addicts must
be brought under supervision, as with heroin before 1971. If prices
rise and demand is curtailed, consumption will fall. That is the only
way in which government can reduce public harm.

Until then this hugely profitable market will continue to boom. No
amount of posturing, law-making or reclassification will make the
slightest difference.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake