Pubdate: Sun, 25 Jan 2004
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


The Home Office minister and former dope user Caroline Flint leaves Stuart 
Wavell gasping as she tries to defend the new soft line on cannabis

It is no secret that the Home Office minister Caroline Flint is a tough 
nut. When she and her boyfriend found themselves in a bank hold-up in 1994, 
the duo tripped the fleeing gunman, hit him on the head and held him down 
until the police arrived. Last week she was experiencing a series of more 
bruising encounters as she tried to sell the convoluted logic of the 
government's plan to downgrade cannabis to the status of a drug no more 
dangerous than painkillers.

The confused message of this initiative is that cannabis is less harmful 
than previously thought and those caught smoking it will probably be let 
off with a caution; hence a UKP 1m campaign to proclaim that the drug is 
both harmful and illegal. Baffled yet? Flint, a raven-haired Londoner who 
became a minister only seven months ago, is unruffled by these 
contradictions. During our interview, she shrugs off that morning's 
condemnation of cannabis by the British Medical Association (BMA)and 
alarming new evidence of links between it and mental illness.

Behind this apparent disregard for public concerns lurks a larger Home 
Office agenda that would be instantly comprehensible to the hookah-smoking 
Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland but is not easily grasped by normal mortals.

What, for example, is the real reason for the government's decision to 
reclassify cannabis from a class B to a class C drug, putting it on a par 
with painkillers, steroids and tranquillisers? Why open this can of worms, 
provoking Michael Howard to pledge that a future Conservative government 
would reverse the legislation?

Flint begins with a patter about police being liberated to tackle hard 
drugs. "We know the use of class A drugs -- cocaine, heroin, crack -- 
causes the most amount of crime. They are also the drugs of which violence 
is often a common feature, in terms of organised crime and other criminal 

This suggests cannabis users should be left alone because they are too 
spaced out to disturb the peace. But, paradoxically, her main preoccupation 
seems to be with explaining the relative "harms" of cannabis and class A 
drugs to the young. "If we're going to have an engagement with young 
people, it has to be one that is honest and credible about the different 
harms that these drugs pose for them," she says.

In a month-long campaign in newspapers, radio stations and leaflets, 
children will be told that hard drugs are more harmful than cannabis, 
although the latter has health consequences. These facts might seem 
self-evident to the young who, as the 42-year-old minister admits, "know 
about drugs because they're using them" . Like "totality", "harms" is one 
of those words in the government lexicon that has shades of meaning. Flint 
asserts that alcohol and amphetamines are "worse" than cannabis. But there 
is no ambiguity about the BMA's alarm at the drug's reclassification. Last 
week the association said the move, due to come into effect this week, sent 
out "all the wrong messages" to people thinking of experimenting with drugs.

Another warning comes from Robin Murray, head of psychiatry at the 
Institute of Psychiatry, who says people who use cannabis in their teens 
are up to four times more likely to develop psychosis, and that in one 
study up to 80% of new psychotic cases used cannabis.

When I mention this, however, Flint switches to denial mode. "If people 
have mental illness problems and they are abusing substances such as 
cannabis or legal drugs such as alcohol, then there are dangers, 
particularly if they are not following courses of treatment or other forms 
of medication that have been prescribed for them."

Isn't she overlooking four studies, cited by Murray, showing that use of 
cannabis, particularly in young people, can significantly increase the 
likelihood of the onset of psychosis?

Flint is not buying it. "Often people who develop mental illness later in 
life as a young adult are involved in risk-taking activities such as 
alcohol and other drugs as well," she insists. So it's okay to encourage 
them to smoke pot then?

Is the government acting on out-of-date information? Murray claimed there 
were no psychosis experts on its advisory committees. Flint swears 
otherwise. However, the next day the Commons committee that endorsed 
reclassification said that because of the new research it would rethink the 
decision this year.

Flint places much faith in a schools education programme to get over the 
message that under-18s will still be arrested for possession. According to 
a government survey last year, nearly half of 15-year-olds have tried drugs 
and one in five is a regular user. Of this age group, 45% said they had 
tried cannabis, sniffed glue or used harder drugs and one-third claimed 
they had taken cannabis over the previous year.

Young people are not noted for heeding campaigns aimed at them, or for 
reading the small print. For them, the bottom line is possible arrest if 
caught smoking openly, followed by a caution.

But doesn't the new law also send a message to the police, telling them to 
turn a blind eye? Flint says not: "If you are under 18 and a police officer 
finds you have cannabis on you or you're smoking cannabis in the street, 
they will arrest you and take you to the police station. The police wanted 
to retain that power."

Could the government's "engagement with young people" have anything to do 
with Labour looking cool to the younger generation? After all, the 
glamorous and youthful Flint has readily admitted that she smoked cannabis 
while a student at the University of East Anglia in the early 1980s. These 
days Flint claims she didn't like the taste and the fact that it was 
illegal acted as a "brake".

If the fear of arrest stopped her, shouldn't today's students be similarly 
deterred? Under the new law, simple possession will lead only to a caution 
and confiscation of the drug, unless the offender commits an act of public 

She is puzzlingly adamant that the key deterrent was not her possible 
arrest. "It was the fact that the drug was illegal. And I didn't like the 
scene around it, to be honest. I didn't know if you were locked up or 
cautioned or whatever."

Flint steps back from agreeing that her spliff has given her street cred, 
but admits coyly: "I think it gives me a little bit of understanding about 
what young people go through and what they're tempted by."

She is surely aware that since her own pot-smoking days the potency of 
cannabis has greatly increased? Street-bought skunk can be five times as 
strong as traditional grass and can leave users incapable rather than 
mildly befuddled. A rash of former liberals have come out in print to 
detail their own children's bad experiences of this.

But Flint is dismissive: "It is important to get across that sometimes when 
a drug is more powerful, it doesn't mean necessarily that someone has more 
of that drug. They take the drug to get the effect they want and if they 
get the effect quicker they will need less of that drug." Tell that to the 
kids who smoke skunk like cigarettes.

It turns out her stance is underpinned by a certainty that, like her, "the 
vast majority of people who have tried cannabis at one point in their life 
do not progress to other drugs and most of them give up cannabis anyway. 
You grow up a bit, get on with other things in life".

This does not quite square with her assessment that most cannabis use is 
not recreational, but to "anaesthetise" people against poverty. "A common 
feature of people who misuse drugs is low self-esteem and lack of 
aspiration," she says. Such people might not throw off the habit so easily.

Her "passing fad" theory will probably not find favour with many experts 
who tend to see cannabis as a "gateway" drug to harder substances. But it 
helps explain government thinking about the many, not the few, in the 
reclassification. Flint spells it out: "They (advisers) looked at the 
majority of people affected and the outcomes of cannabis use against a 
minority for whom cannabis could lead to a psychotic episode or worsen the 
situation if they have mental illness. They had to weigh those issues up." 
But shouldn't she be protecting the vulnerable?

Much of the publicised change is semantic. In 2000, 70,306 people were 
dealt with for possession of cannabis, of which 33,725 were given cautions. 
The courts fined 19,413, another 5,754 were discharged, 2,320 were given 
probation or community orders and 2,124 were imprisoned. Under the new law, 
over-18s can be imprisoned for two years, reduced from five years, but will 
probably escape with a warning.

On my way home -- assaulted by fuzzy thinking -- I remember Alice in 
Wonderland. "'You'll get used to it in time,' said the Caterpillar; and he 
put the hookah into his mouth and began smoking again."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom