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Politicians who outlaw cannabis are just being dopes

Robert Holding can count himself lucky he doesn’t live here. If he did, he’d likely have had his brains blown out by one of our armies of liberation.

Mr Holding (72) was given a suspended sentence at Burnley Crown Court a fortnight ago for delivering cannabis to fellow pensioners while doing his daily milk round. Customers ordered their supply by leaving a note on the doorstep in a milk bottle. The typical order was a pint of gold-top and an eighth.

“It was for elderly people who had aches and pains,” he explained.

Cannabis, or marijuana, has been used in medicine for around 3,000 years. Its efficacy is as well established as the usefulness of aspirin. Apart from the alleviation of pain, it can help greatly with, for example, nausea and loss of appetite from chemotherapy. The fact that it’s illegal to obtain it for even these medical purposes is absurd. And yet, to make the argument for change is to invite a torrent of abuse.

I know scores of responsible adults of all ages who use cannabis regularly and have no intention of giving up.

Giving up cannabis isn’t hard. It is not physically addictive — although it’s easy to become addicted to the tobacco which is commonly mixed with cannabis for smoking. Nicotine is, of course, highly addictive and, like alcohol, much more destructive of individuals and of society than cannabis.

Walk through our city centres any Friday or Saturday night and observe adolescents and, indeed, children out of their minds and at risk of illness, injury and worse after a night guzzling alcohol supplied by elements who will present themselves on Monday morning as sturdy pillars of the community. Dope-pushers do less damage.

The Government’s own scientific advisers want cannabis to be categorised as a relatively harmless Class C drug — possession to be dealt with by caution rather than criminal charge. But Home Secretary Jacqui Smith won’t hear of it.

In November, Smith’s determination to raise cannabis to Class B was described as “extremely damaging” in a letter signed by doctors and scientists, including two former government chief scientists, Sir David King and Lord May, the chair of the Academy of Medical Science’s working group on brain science, addiction and drugs, Sir Gabriel Horn, and Professor Colin Blakemore, former head of the Medical Research Council. Designating cannabis as Class B, the group pointed out, makes it more difficult to distinguish in health education between cannabis and dangerous drugs.

The former director of the Cabinet’s Anti-Drugs Co-ordination Unit, Julian Critchley, says that the only way to overcome the problem is to “legalise drugs and take control of supply.”

Perhaps the most dishonest argument against cannabis is that it ‘leads on’ to harder drugs. No, it doesn’t. What leads on to harder drugs is the fact that cannabis is illegal.

To obtain cannabis, you, or a friend doing the errand on your behalf, has to venture into twilight territory where, inevitably, suppliers are likely to be engaged in distributing other illegal substances too.

Prohibition in the US in 1920 provides a precedent. Supporters of prohibition argued that criminalising alcohol would protect citizens, young people in particular, from drunkenness, brain damage, family breakdown and violent crime. When the opposite turned out to be the case, prohibitionists demanded tougher enforcement and harsher sentences.

But by the late 1920s, as armed gangsters fought turf-wars for the alcohol ‘franchise’ in major cities, the tide of opinion began to turn. Pauline Sabin famously founded the Women’s Organisation for National Prohibition Reform (The Sabin Women) in 1929: within two years, it had one and a half million members and had persuaded Franklin Roosevelt to include abolition in his election programme. Prohibition ended in 1933 — and with it the connection between alcohol and gangsterism, heroin and vice. Decriminalising cannabis would have a comparable effect.

The main reason decriminalisation doesn’t happen is that people who wield power have a vested interest in keeping the public in ignorance and fear of drugs. Measures most people would bristle at are frequently accepted when presented as a response to a ‘drugs threat’. This is true both of governments out to curtail civil liberty and of organisations seeking to impose themselves on the community. In 1994 and 1995, the Provisional IRA, behind the cover-name Direct Action Against Drugs, murdered nine people whom they accused of dealing in drugs. There was ritual condemnation by respectable folk, but no swell of outrage.

There was horror in Derry last week at the murder of Jim McConnell. Then it emerged he’d served time for drugs offences. Condemnation became muted.

Neither the Provos’ DAAD killings nor the INLA murders of Brian McGlynn in Strabane two years ago and now of Jim McConnell in Derry have been regarded by the British Government or any of the Executive parties as breaches of the ceasefires. What was that about there being no hierarchy of victims?

There is a solid case for decriminalising all drugs, so that distribution can be regularised and quality controlled, and so people, especially young people, can learn what’s dangerous and how to minimise risk.

Decriminalising cannabis would be a first step towards a rational drugs policy. Turning a blind eye to scientific fact while working to sustain hysteria is part of the problem, not part of a solution.

By Eamonn McCann