The Time is Right to Decriminalise Cannabis
Independent on Sunday, 28 September 1997

Today, the Independent on Sunday calls for personal use of cannabis to be decriminalised.

The paper's reasons are outlined by Rosie Boycott, the editor, writing in Section Two and support4ed by strong arguments from a leading policeman and a consultant psychiatrist. The paper's campaign will continue until the law is changed and possession of marijuana for personal use is no longer an offence.

Already, well-known names from the arts, business, higher education and law are backing the paper's cause. Their names also appear in Section Two and will be added to in the coming weeks. This is the first time a national newspaper has sought the lawful use of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes.

The campaign comes as the Government prepares to appoint its first US-style "drugs tsar" to coordinate the anti-drugs efforts of the police, customs, intelligence services and social service. Interviews for the position took place last Tuesday with ministers alighting on one "favoured candidate". However, the appointment, which was expected to be announced in Tony Blair's conference speech on Tuesday, may be delayed for logistic reasons.

Once Parliament reconvenes after the party conference season, MPs from all sides are expected to argue for the law to be changed. Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West and a consistent campaigner for decriminalisation, yesterday signed the Independent on Sunday petition for decriminalisation. Mr. Flynn said: "We have lost the drugs battle in Britain." Their efforts are likely to attract a hostile reaction from Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, but Mr. Flynn, Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year, is undeterred. "In July, the Government told me 50 per cent of young women and 70 per cent of young men have used illegal drugs,", he told the Independent on Sunday yesterday. "At raves, it's a phenomenal 90 per cent who break an unenforceable law. Police prefer dealing with friendly huggers at raves rather than handling violent, puking drunks."

Mr. Flynn added:"Is the answer to get tough, to crack down on pushers and users? It's been done and failed. America has had a 20-year war against drugs. The result? Drugs use, drug crime are the worst they have ever been.""

Why we believe it is time to decriminalise cannabis

By Rosie Boycott, Editor

I rolled my first joint on a hot June day in Hyde Park. Summer of '68. Just 17. Desperate to be grown-up. I'd found a strategic tree overlooking the Serpentine bowl. A few weeks later I'd return to listen to the Fleetwood Mac playing a free concert. I had a fingernail-sized lump of hashish, a box of Swan Vestas matches, a broken Benson and Hedges and three small Rizla cigarette papers clumsily melded together. Oh, the glamour of Rizlas. Oh, the illicit thrill of the banal vocabulary - a deal, a joint, a spliff. All deriving, like Jagger's music, from a remote black American culture I knew little about. Yet it had conquered me, and the entire youth generation. My first smoke, a mildly giggly intoxication, was wholly anti-climatic. The soggy joint fell apart. I didn't feel changed. But that act turned me - literally - into an outlaw. I was on the other side of the fence from the police - or the fuzz, as we used to call them. So were a great many of my generation. When Mick Jagger was heavily fined thousands of pounds after a punitive trial for possession of cannabis, the conservative and middle-aged thought he deserved it. But William Rees-Mogg, then the editor of the Times, was unhappy at what he called, in a legendary leader, this "primitive" impulse to "break a butterfly on a wheel". To everyone's surprise, he published a full-page advertisement dedicated to the proposition that "the law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice". It contained the names of 50 prominent people from Jonathan Miller to a pushy young MP called Jonathan Aitken. They launched a short-lived campaign advocating the decriminalisation of marijuana - as cannabis was universally known in those remote days of Harold Wilson's premiership. They wanted cannabis off the dangerous drugs list: "Possession ... should be either permitted or at most considered a misdemeanour punishable by a fine of not more than ten pounds."

In his Times leader the future Lord Rees-Mogg had identified something he called "the new hedonism". He said that where it was in conflict with sound traditional values it was necessary to ensure that these values included "tolerance and equity".

Here was establishment-speak for the common cries of "Mick's been made a Scapegoat", or, less stridently, "Cannabis is a harmless component of contemporary relaxation". The pro-cannabis campaigners backed their demands with weighty medical evidence. No one took any notice.

Convictions for cannabis possession went on rising, from 18,213 in 1985 to 68,598 in 1995. Dealers grew rich by offering for sale not just cannabis, but a cocktail of drugs. The distinction between what was and wasn't safe was most decidedly blurred. Greed entered the picture, and hysteria entered the debate. Cannabis might lead a person to hard drugs - yes, but mainly because the same person selling you the one - cannabis - will also offer the other - heroin or cocaine. There is no physical evidence that says smoking cannabis creates the desire for "harder" drugs.

The irony, of course, is that one of the world's most dangerous drugs, the one responsible for more crime, more lost hours at work, more broken families, more violence, more ghastly heartbreak, is freely available in every supermarket and corner store in the land. If alcohol is a tiger, then cannabis is merely a mouse. Alcohol is fine for those who can handle it. As a recovered alcoholic, I have experienced the terrible consequence of booze. Everyone has probably known someone whose life - or family - has been blighted by alcohol, heroin or cocaine. But they'll know more people damaged by drink. Where alcohol is aggressive, cannabis is passive.

Certainly, no one has ever been disfigured by a joint. The truth is that most people I know have smoked at some time or other in their lives. They hold down jobs, bring up their families, run major companies, govern our country, and yet, 30 years after my day out in Hyde Park, cannabis is still officially regarded as a dangerous drug. That amazes me as much as seeing the Rolling Stones, their combined ages easily topping 200, cavorting in Chicago as if not a day has passed.

Since my first joint, I've smoked a good many more, although I hardly smoke at all nowadays. The habit has given up on me. But I don't see why people who share my earlier enthusiasm should be branded as criminal. Isn't it time we faced up to the facts, and ended this hypocrisy?

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