Pubdate: Wed, 14 May 2008
Source: Argus, The (UK)
Copyright: 2008 Newsquest Media Group
Author: Adam Trimingham
Bookmark: (Opinion)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)


One of the first big stories I ever covered as a reporter concerned 
cannabis back in the early 1960s.

I was working in Notting Hill where West Indians who liked the drug 
used to hold pot parties every month.

They would commandeer an empty house, play loud music and smoke 
cannabis, much to the annoyance of neighbours who liked neither the 
noise nor the smell, both of which were considerable.

Charges were levied for admittance.

Somehow I managed to get into one of these parties and filed reports 
for the local paper. They caused a small sensation with questions 
asked in Parliament.

How long ago this all is is shown by the fact that cannabis was then 
known as Indian hemp and most people had never heard of it. What's 
more, the admission to those parties was only half a crown, just 
twelve and a half pence in today's currency.

I shall never forget the sweet, sickly odour of cannabis which 
pervaded the huge houses or the sound of the music that could be 
heard 400 yards away. Police in Notting Hill took firm action and 
eventually the parties become too hot for organisers to handle.

When I came to Brighton in 1967, a charge of possessing cannabis was 
still a big news story. As a freelance reporter, I could usually 
guarantee a news item on regional TV for someone being fined the then 
standard rate of UKP25.

The prevailing establishment view, even in the swinging sixties, was 
that all drugs are bad, even those like cannabis widely perceived to 
be less harmful than heroin or cocaine.

But in that same year, West Sussex was at the centre of a case which 
changed the national perception of hard penalties against drug use.

Police raided Redlands, the country home of Rolling Stone Keith 
Richards, arresting him for allowing cannabis to be smoked on his 
premises and lead singer Mick Jagger for possessing four amphetamine tablets.

Both men were jailed amid widespread protests, some from unlikely 
quarters such as The Times.

The then editor, William Rees-Mogg, penned a famous editorial headed: 
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? using a quote from Pope to make his point.

The sentences were quashed on appeal. Jagger is now a knight and a 
member of the cricket-loving establishment. Rees-Mogg is a peer. 
Police usually turn a blind eye towards the possession of many drugs 
regarded as minor.

Among them is cannabis, which has been graded at the lowest level of 
class C following a decision by the Labour Government.

You can sometimes see it being smoked openly in the streets of 
tolerant Sussex towns. The drug is easy to buy and it is cheap.

The establishment view has changed so much over the past 40 years 
that cannabis possession is widespread with smokers knowing there is 
little chance of their being prosecuted.

Police tend to go for the suppliers rather than the smokers, 
concentrating their effort on dealers, cannabis factories - such as 
the one seized in Moulsecoomb yesterday - and cannabis cafes such as 
the infamous one in Worthing. But the pendulum is swinging back the 
other way and the Government is recommending that it should be a 
class B drug once again.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is to strengthen penalties for having the 
drug, increasing the maximum jail sentence from two to five years.

In doing so, she and the Government are going against the review of 
the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs which concluded cannabis 
should remain in class C.

I am firmly in favour of treating cannabis as a serious drug. For too 
long it has been regarded benignly as a substance which merely sends 
smokers into a happy, almost dreamlike state.

Its supporters say it is less addictive than tobacco and less likely 
to make people violent than alcohol.

Both these statements are probably true but are not reasons in 
themselves for condoning its use. I went to plenty of parties in the 
1960s and 70s where people in Brighton and Hove spoke what they 
believed to be beautiful thoughts while lying spaced out on the floor.

Usually they were prattling mindless rubbish and the parties were 
deeply dull to anyone not smoking the ubiquitous weed.

Millions of people have been to parties like that, usually regarding 
them with a kindly eye. There seemed no harm in a few hippies 
dropping out and enjoying themselves with pot.

But what has happened to those hippies? Some have given up drugs. 
Many have moved on to far more dangerous drugs. A few young hippies 
have become old hippies without ever contributing so much as a bean to society.

The drug has addled their minds.

The advisory committee concludes there is a probable but weak causal 
link between psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia and cannabis use.

It believes cannabis plays only a modest role in the development of 
many well known psychiatric conditions.

But that is not the view of many psychiatrists working in Sussex who 
have to deal with people deeply damaged by the drug. They have no 
doubt of a strong link between cannabis and mental illness.

Cannabis may not always cause mental illness but there is a strong 
case for believing it worsens the problem.

A sad example was the suicide of 25-year-old Hamish Donaldson after a 
long fight against severe psychiatric illness.

Hamish started with cannabis and later took cocaine. No wonder his 
mother Julia, author of the children's book The Gruffalo, is backing 
the reclassification of cannabis.

She said: "Hamish had much too much hash and it was horribly 
demotivating, apart from anything else. I think it did affect him in 
the long term."

Cannabis is also no good for physical health in that smokers are 
drawing strong substances into their lungs without any of the filter 
tips standard on conventional cigarettes.

But the most damning case against cannabis is that it is a gateway 
drug. I know people will tell me millions of people have used it 
without ever trying anything else.

I accept this may be so but show me someone addicted to hard drugs 
and I will show you a former or current cannabis smoker.

Hamish Donaldson is a classic case.

Drug taking is almost out of control among many people, not only in 
Brighton and Hove where it might be expected, but also in small towns 
and villages.

There is a serious argument which I respect for legalising all drugs 
and lessening the crimes they provoke. But this would only increase 
their use by making them semirespectable.

We can never return to those innocent days almost half a century ago 
when cannabis was almost unknown. But we should no longer be tolerant 
of a drug which causes harm in itself and leads many people on to 
drugs which are even more dangerous. A crackdown on cannabis smokers 
as well as dealers may seem draconian but without one group you will 
not have the other. It will not break a butterfly upon a wheel but it 
will stop us making a hash of our attitude towards cannabis. 
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