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Pot Luck

The Minister admits to smoking cannabis and the Drug Tzar calls for a more liberal approach to soft drugs, while the Police Federation Report advocates ending gaol for cannabis possession. David Floyd examines the repercussions.

In recent weeks we have witnessed several important installments in the on-going saga of what is optimistically called the drugs debate.

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 problems.

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 fines.

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 earth.

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.


March/April 2000