n recent weeks we have witnessed several important installments
in the on-going saga of what is optimistically called the
First we had the minister responsible for tackling 'the drugs
problem', Mo Mowlam, confessing that she'd smoked cannabis,
and a few unknown Liberal Democrats, in a desperate bid to
get known, said they had too.
This was followed by both Dr Mowlam and the previously stooge-like
Drugs Tsar Keith Hellawell suggesting that they favoured a
more liberal approach to soft drugs in tandem with more funding
for programmes to tackle heroin.
Unfortunately just when it seemed like British drugs policy
was in danger of receiving a previously unheard of dose of
common sense, the Conservatives stepped in. William Hague
unveiled the policy of mandatory jail sentences for anyone
caught with cannabis within 400 metres of school. Tony Blair
noticed the huge risk of Mowlam and Hellawell's blatantly
non-hysterical approach, wheeled out a few anti-drugs campaigners
to join him in a war against cannabis, and summoned the minister
and the Tsar to No 10 for a slap on the wrist.
It seems that as usual the real arguments are likely to end
up buried in a pile of supposedly populist drivel from both
sides, but even so these events give a pretty good idea of
the general picture on drugs policy.
If you look beneath the hype New Labour is faced with a stark
choice: is it going to keep the stick with Jack Straw's staunch
prohibitionist line irrespective of all the evidence suggesting
that it will never succeed, or is it going to risk the wrath
of the popular press by looking for serious solutions to drug
Mo Mowlam's confession is neither particularly significant,
or relevant to the drugs debate. Out in the real world the
revelation that many middle-class people smoke dope at university
is about as shocking as the idea that most teenaged boys are
fascinated by breasts. What it does show, however, is that
Mowlam understands the stupidity of the governments present
position. Significantly since her appointment Ms Mowlam has
made encouraging noises about the legalisation of cannabis
for medical purposes, and has refused to rule out decriminalization
of the drug for recreational use. For his part Keith Hellawell
has not only made it clear that drugs policy should be focused
on helping the users of hard drugs, he has also hinted at
replacing arrests for cannabis use with parking ticket style
The new Tory policy is as predictable as it is stupid. If
there was really going to be any common sense in Hague's revolution
he would suggest decriminalising cannabis and saving the money
that would have been spent prosecuting and jailing users.
It wouldn't do much to solve the drugs problem but at least
it would give Blair and Straw something real to worry about.
As it is, the official Opposition's draconian plans simply
reinforce the view, at least amongst younger voters, that
the Conservative Party has little or no connection to planet
Sadly though, the Tories are a factor in the current state
of the debate on drug policy. This involves a quaint coalition
of Liberal Democrats and columnists from the Independent
on Sunday delivering sensible arguments against prohibition,
pitched against tabloid front pages screaming 'Ecstasy killed
my daughter', while Jack Straw cowers under the table in his
office with his hands over his ears. It's not much of a contest.
Although it may be a source of pain relief to people with
illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, cannabis is generally
not very good for you (like tobacco, if smoked, it can cause
lung cancer) so in an ideal world it would be better if people
could do without it.
However, the fact is that a large number of people includinge
around 50% of young people know the risk of using cannabis
but do it anyway. The present laws have failed to change this.
The Tories' policy would be just as unsuccessful in anything,
apart from packing gaols.
The major politicians claim to have the very honourable intention
of making life more difficult for drugs barons, but under
the present system, the seizures that do occur fail dismally
to make a significant impact in illegal drug sales, which
make up around 8% of world trade, all of which is tax-free.
Liberalising cannabis laws ultimately has the potential not
only to produce lots of tax revenue which could be spent on
tackling hard drugs, but also to break the link between hard
and soft drugs, as cannabis would be available from regulated
licensed premises. This would genuinely hurt the dealers.
Maybe we do have to debate whether taxpayers' money should
be spent pursuing people who choose to risk lung cancer for
the chance to giggle and talk total nonsense in the middle
of a field, but I can't honestly believe we need to debate
it for very long.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that there is an issue where
new Labour will allow the Tories to have the dark side all
to themselves, but you never know.