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'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial

Smoke Signals

The Pot debate comes to the boil

April 2000 / Squall Download 4, May-June 2000, pp. 4-7.

What a breath of fresh air it was when Alex Salmond, head of the Scottish Nationalist Party, stirred the political stagnancy last year when asked by an interviewer whether he'd ever smoked Cannabis. "Yes," he replied, "But I never exhaled."

Until recently, truthful or even topically humourful comment about drugs has been an endangered species on the political circuit. Besides the odd wry comment from the likes of Salmond, very few politicians have been prepared to utter what the majority refuse to publicly acknowledge; that the UK's tortuously out of touch drug policy is both fallacious and entirely unsuccessful.

The only air circulating amidst this parliamentary stagnancy has been from Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West, an ardent campaigner for the legalisation of Cannabis and a wider overhaul of the drug policy. Evidently more interested in public health than in career promotion (a rare creature in political circles!), Flynn is to present a private members bill before parliament later this year advocating a radical overhaul of the UK's national drug policy. It has little chance of reaching the statute books without government support, but there's no stopping Flynn's efforts to provoke a more relevant debate. In March he announced he would ask British MPs to support the licensing of Amsterdam style cafes where users can buy and smoke their joints legally.

His familiarity with the issue Europe-wide has led to his selection as a rapporteur to the Council of Europe's Social Policy and Health Committee which is currently examining drug policy in the two European countries it considers to have the most "repressive" drug policies, the UK and Switzerland. There's little doubt that Flynn stands out a mile from the rest of his cowering colleagues who shy in the shadows fearful of the kind of management reprimand which has imprisoned the tongues of intelligent political voices for years. Until recently this dearth of decent debate has been punctuated only by the odd medical expert or senior police officer who, frustrated by the obvious lack of policy success, have stepped out of line to advocate a different approach to the zero tolerance policy inherited and championed by Uncle Jack Straw and Labour's lackey drugs czar, Keith Hellawell.

And yet seventy six per cent of those imprisoned for drug offences in the UK are incarcerated for Cannabis offences, and according to a recent Europe-wide survey, more people smoke Cannabis in the UK than anywhere else in Europe. So there was little doubt that the pot debate definitely needed a stir and at the end of March it finally got one.

Two years ago, the Police Foundation appointed an eleven strong team of high level academics and social professionals to conduct an independent inquiry into certain aspects of UK drug policy.

The committee - part sponsored by the Princes Trust - included a chief constable, an assistant chief constable, a barrister, a headmistress and four professors in Neuropharmacology, Moral Philosophy, Economics and Social Work Their lengthy investigation included a visit to Amsterdam, a European city much maligned by right-wing hystercists but one which boasts an impressive record on dealing with hard drug abuse. Committee member John Hamilton, Chief Constable of Fife, described Amsterdam as having a "relaxed and unthreatening atmosphere". You might imagine he'd wish the same of Fife.

When General Barry McCaffrey, the current US drugs czar, castigated Holland for the social consequences of its liberal drug policy, the Dutch responded by publishing a series of comparative statistics on their US embassy website. In everyone of them, from incidence of drug use in minors to murders related to drug offences, the Dutch fared far better than the US.

McCaffrey muttered a retraction of his accusation when pressed on the subject during a press conference he conducted on a recent UK visit but in the midst of our painfully muted public debate, his retraction went entirely unreported in the mainstream press.

At long last however, the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 published its media splashed report on March 28 2000 and prized the gag from the mouth of the debate.

The Inquiry concentrated specifically on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and therefore did not take in all aspects of drug policy. But its recommendations include significant shifts in the legal classification of drugs, the wider implications of which will prove difficult for the Home Office to ignore. According to the committee's chairperson, Viscountess Runciman: "We have concluded that the most dangerous message of all is the message that all drugs are equally dangerous. When young people know that the advice they are being given is either exaggerated or untrue in relation to less harmful drugs, there is a real risk they will discount everything else they are told."

In response, the report recommends that drugs should be legally reclassified in order to reflect their social impact. That Ecstasy and LSD are not as harmful as Crack and Heroin and therefore should be relegated to Class B status rather than class A. And that Cannabis should be reduced to a Class C drug, with police officer's directed to only fine or caution those found in possession. The provocative nature of the committee's recommendations compounded a similarly radical report published recently by Cleveland Police. Backed by Cleveland's Chief Constable, Barry Shaw, the report notes: "There is overwhelming evidence to show that the prohibition-based policy in place in this country since 1971 has not been effective in controlling the availability of, or use of, proscribed drugs. If there is indeed a 'war on drugs' it is not being won; drugs are demonstrably cheaper and more easily available than ever before. If prohibition does not work, then either the consequences of this have to be accepted or an alternative approach must be found. The most obvious alternative approach is the legalisation and subsequent regulation of some or all drugs."

However, in the first few days after the publication of the Inquiry report, the Home Office issued flat rejections of its recommendations and chose to ignore altogether the strong suggestions put forward by Cleveland Police. But then something unusual happened in the land of Britain; something which Jack Straw's playsafe to the grey galleries could not ignore. The media supported the Inquiry's recommendations to an extent hitherto unwitnessed in the UK. Unbelievable though it may seem, the official newspaper of the right wing old boy network, the Daily Telegraph, published an editorial headlined "An experiment with Cannabis" which called ....wait for it....for cannabis to be legalised!

"People like substances that alter their mood," its editorial observed. "And only strict puritans believe that they should never use any of them. A cup of coffee, a glass of wine or beer, even the odd cigarette are among the legitimate pleasures of life. Are drugs fundamentally different?......The government should draw up plans to legalise cannabis - generally accepted as the least dangerous of the drugs that are widely used - both for its consumption and for its supply."

The Police Review was equally emphatic: "The sizeable community who use soft drugs recreationally...want a change in the law which reflects what is already happening at social gatherings, small and large, every night of the week. It is dismal that this reality, reflected in the report, carries no weight with the government and its disappointing drugs czar, who...appears to be performing a huge U-turn on the more enlightened approach he adopted as a senior police officer."

When the Daily Mail joined both the Telegraph and the Police Review in proposing a wider debate, Jack Straw was left like a beached whale. The following day he admitted for the first time publicly that there was, after all, a "coherent argument" in favour of the legalisation of cannabis. However without explanation or further discussion he is still electing not to agree with the argument, however coherent or well informed.

Nevertheless, the fact that the traditional right wing media are criticising the government's misplaced puritanism on drugs is a sea-change indeed. Jack Straw, who once ran for student union presidency with the laughable election slogan "Not respectable but respected", looks increasingly isolated from the very media he's been pandering to in a fervent quest to be indistinguishable from his Tory predecessors.

And what's more his attitude seems to rub off on anyone associated with him. Take the very disappointing drug czar, Keith Hellawell. As a chief constable back in 1994 he observed: "The present policies are not working. We seize more drugs, we arrest more people but when you look at the availability of drugs, the use of drugs, the crime committed because of and through people who use drugs, the violence associated with drugs, it ís on the increase. It can't be working".

These days, however, he draws a salary greater the prime minister's and paid for by all of us, and what we get for our money is a man who'll who is prepared to belie his own experience in order to play along with Straw's pitiful ministry. Neither respectable nor respected. And certainly not by his fellow MP, Paul Flynn, whose humourfully astute website at makes clear what he thinks of his party colleague at the Home Office: " My spy in the Home Office has revealed the truth of Jack Straw's agonising over Pinochet.

'He tortured thousands, Home Secretary,' his advisers told him.

'Serious stuff.' said Jack. 'But he's an old man and it was a long time ago.' They said, 'He killed hundreds of thousands of people.' 'Nobody's perfect.' said Jack. 'In government you have to take some hard decisions.' The advisers played their ace. 'We think that here in Britain he took some medicinal cannabis for his back pain' 'That's dreadful,' screamed Jack. ' Pack him off to a Spanish dungeon.'"

Recent utterings from the public debate on Cannabis can be viewed in Reefer Gladness on the SQUALL Features page.

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