Pubdate: April 11, 1998
Source: New Scientist (UK)
Author: LTE from George Howarth, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State,
The Home Office, London


Your special on cannabis contained a great deal of fascinating material,
but in the end failed to convince me that the government is wrong in its
view that the current illegal status of this drug should remain (Marijuana
Special Report, 21 February, p 23). Nor did it undermine the credibility of
the conclusion of the WHO report on the health effects of cannabis.

In response to your news item (p 4), the WHO has explained that the
prepublication changes to its report were part of the normal editorial
process: there is nothing sinister about removing an off-the-cuff
comparison between cannabis and tobacco when the report is not about
tobacco in the first place.

That the consumption of dangerous drugs such as tobacco and alcohol remains
lawful does not undermine the government's case against the legalisation of
cannabis. Suffice to say that both the WHO report and your own analysis
demonstrate abundantly the many reasons for believing that cannabis has
harmful physical and mental effects, both in the short and long term.

The British Crime Survey suggests that there are about 1.5 million people
in Britain who have used cannabis in the last month, compared with an
estimated 12 million people who smoke cigarettes every day, and 42 million
who drink alcohol to a greater or lesser extent. The illegality of cannabis
is one of the main reasons why we don't have a cannabis problem which is
just as big.

And that brings me to your interpretation of the Dutch experience, and your
statement that the leading researchers on this subject, Robert MacCoun and
Peter Reuter, "have concluded that 'reductions in criminal penalties have
little effect on drug use, at least for marijuana"'. That is a seriously
misleading quotation from the editorial summary of their article in Science
which appeared on 3 October last year (vol 278, p 47).

The article itself, in the critical passage (p 50) says that "there is no
evidence that the depenalisation component of the 1976 policy, per se,
increased levels of cannabis use. On the other hand, the later growth in
commercial access to cannabis, after de facto legalisation, was accompanied
by steep increases in use, even among youth." We have no intention of
conducting a similar experiment on the young people of the UK.

George Howarth Parliamentary Under Secretary of State The Home Office, London

New Scientist replies: The MacCoun and Reuter article does indeed conclude
that there was an increase in cannabis use in the Netherlands during the
1980s. But as the authors go on to say, the link with coffee shops "may not
be causal; we have already seen that recent increases occurred in the US
and Oslo despite very different policies. Second...throughout most of the
first two decades of the 1976 policy, Dutch use levels remained at or below
those of the US." Throughout the 1980s, the prevalence of cannabis use in
the Netherlands was comparable to that in Germany, Sweden, Britain, France
and Austria. To imply that the Dutch policy backfired is therefore