Pubdate: Sun, 11 July 1999
Source: Scotland On Sunday (UK)
Contact:  Amelia Hill


IS CANNABIS smuggling four times worse than rape? The question, posed
yesterday by Lord McCluskey, fanned the flames of an already heated
argument and bought yet more pressure to bear on a government
reluctant to enter into a head-on collision with an increasingly
rebellious public.

Over the past two years, campaigners fighting for the legalisation or
decriminalisation of cannabis have won camp after respectable camp
around to their way of thinking, leaving the government exposed at the
centre of the row, posturing from behind paper-thin defences with its
argument for inaction teetering on shaky foundations. Last week, the
chair of the British Medical Association's Scottish public health
committee called for a Royal Commission and said it was only a matter
of time before the BMA voted to decriminalise cannabis. The BMA has
already accepted that cannabis could help people suffering a long list
of ailments, including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and

The previous week, 18 Labour constituency parties urged the government
to legalise the drug and the month before that, the Scottish Liberal
Democrat leader and Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace indicated his
support for decriminalisation. In April, Tom Wood, one of Scotland's
most senior police officers, supported calls for legalisation -
although he later insisted his statement was made in a personal
capacity only - and in March, Keith Hellawell, the drugs tsar,
admitted cannabis smoking is so commonplace among British
schoolchildren its use is no longer regarded as an act of rebellion.

Even the Conservatives have broken ranks over the issue: last
February, Peter Bottomley, the former Northern Ireland minister, and
David Prior demanded that the law be changed to enable cannabis to be
used for medical treatment.

"At present, doctors can prescribe everything from heroin-derived
products to drugs such as aspirin, yet they cannot prescribe something
in the middle like cannabinoid substances," said Bottomley, pointing
out that 2,000 people died from aspirin last year in the US. "That is
anomalous." The issue over whether to legalise cannabis entered
mainstream public imagination two years ago when the government
appointed Hellawell as its first US-style drugs tsar to co-ordinate
the anti-drugs efforts of the police, customs, intelligence services
and social services. At the time, surveys revealed that 80% of the
public was in favour of legalisation - a point of view supported by
the EU commissioner Emma Bonino, one of the most prominent people to
raise her voice against the current impasse.

More than 16,000 protesters marched through London shortly afterwards
in protest at the government's refusal to listen to their views,
pointing out that even the General Synod of the Church of England had
agreed to debate the case for allowing medical experimentation with a
substance accepted as fundamentally harmless. Last May, 44% of prison
warders agreed that the personal use of cannabis could even contribute
to "good order" in jails.

Yet still the government's failure of nerves is doing more harm than
good by encouraging them to stop their ears to the litany of facts and
figures. Jack Cunningham, minister for the Cabinet Office, insisted
last week that the government still had "no intention of
decriminalising any illegal drugs" and said that the government's
decision to allow testing of cannabis that could lead to its use for
medical purposes in five years' time was as far as they were prepared
to go.

Under the current law, importers of cannabis can be sentenced to up to
six years in jail - a sentence four times as severe as most handed
down to convicted rapists - and those using the drug for medical
purposes or personal recreation can also face hefty prison sentences,
often leading to incarcerations of a type considered inhumane by all
but the most hardened law-abiding citizen.

Take the case of 55-year-old Eric Mann, a severe arthritis sufferer
who smoked cannabis rather than have steroids injected directly into
his bones. While steroids could have caused death or serious injury,
cannabis enabled Mann to leave his wheelchair and even to start
playing the guitar again. The price of clawing back some quality of
life was a one-year jail sentence.

Five million people now use cannabis for medical or recreational
purposes - 8% of the population - and experts and laymen are now
asking how this can be a just law when so many people are prepared to
break it.

Despite the power of public opinion, the police are not turning a
blind eye - implementing their own, unspoken form of
decriminalisation: the number of people jailed for drug offences rose
by 19% last year to 117,000, with almost 90% being possession cases,
most of them for cannabis. It costs A326,000 a year to keep each
person sentenced for using cannabis in jail: wasted money, maintain
those who point out that 85% of all those charged with cannabis
offences have no criminal record.

"We're making our children criminals because they prefer a safer
euphoriant substance to that chosen by middle-aged men," said Dr
George Venters, chairman of the BMA's Scottish public health
committee. "People with criminal records find it much more difficult
to get jobs, and unemployment is closely linked to ill health and
early death. Why should we impair people's ability to have a decent
income and decent health?"

Last year, 29,500 Scots were charged with possessing or supplying
drugs, the majority for cannabis. "Criminalising young people for
cannabis is a waste of police time, the courts' time and public money
which would be better used in getting resources in place to help those
with a real drug problem," said Keith Williamson, drugs spokesman of
the Scottish Socialist Party and the author of a book calling for the
legalisation of cannabis.

The approach of parliament to the question of cannabis legalisation is
ostensibly inflexible but is actually riven with inconsistencies: a
character reference from Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer,
helped save one of his constituents from jail last April - even though
the accused had been found growing almost A3 10,000 worth of
cannabis. On the other hand, the Body Shop ran into heavy criticism
from former Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe for its range of skin
products which contain hemp oil.

The Conservative MP accused the Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick, of
being "wholly irresponsible" and of "making a joke of drug-taking" - a
claim which Roddick easily sloughed off by pointing out that if
Widdecombe honestly believed "the sight of a hemp plant will drive
Britain's youth to drugs then she must also urge the British Legion to
drop their Poppy Day appeal in case everyone starts taking opium".

At present, campaigners maintain that the government is trying to
fight the war on drugs on too many fronts. They believe that by
redefining the problem and reprioritising resources and determination,
money currently spent on pursuing cannabis users could be spent on
creating detoxification and rehabilitation facilities for addicts.

Recent research found that at least 50% of today's young women and 70%
of young men take or have taken cannabis. It is inevitable, therefore,
that many of the next generation of politicians will have used
cannabis personally and will probably be more disposed to legalise

But why wait that long? If the government agrees to hold a Royal
Commission, the minimum demand of all campaigners, both sides of the
debate would have a proper social audit at its disposal and a debate
based on the facts rather than prejudice could then be held before
more young people are criminalised and more money is wasted.
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