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Article
6 January 2006Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Charles Clarke's bad trip
The home secretary says the public is confused about the legal status of cannabis. It's his government that is confused.

by Jamie Douglass

UK home secretary Charles Clarke is - yet again - making noises about cannabis (1). Clearly unhappy with the declassification legacy left him by Mr Blunkett, he is apparently 'very worried' about the confusion caused by the drug's legal status as a Class C narcotic, and now he is considering a u-turn on the downgrading. Well he might be concerned about the confusion caused by the new cannabis law, because it seems to be confusing him more than most.

The 'recent' reports linking cannabis to mental illness have left him all in a tizzy. Not that the reports are particularly recent, of course; the mental health charity Rethink has long been campaigning over this. And they are by no means alone in questioning the impact of dope on public health. Since 1968, several Royal Commissions and WHO reports have investigated said effects. Interestingly, quite a few have concluded that they see no reason for it to be illegal at all, but have been ignored.

It is easy to become rather boring and repetitive on this subject, but if it's good enough for the home secretary, then it's good enough for me - so here goes.

Investigations have, it is true, linked cannabis to mental illness - but in much the same way that one can link petrol to car crashes. The quoted findings, however they are spun, are that cannabis may (not will) exacerbate (not cause) mental illnesses such as schizophrenia in people who were already disposed to them.

You might think that it would be sensible and rational to establish whether a substance is dangerous before making possessing or using it a criminal offence. Even the government advisory committee stopped short of advocating reclassification (presumably since they recognise that all the police time wasted on stopping every silly sod carrying a spliff in public is being better deployed elsewhere). So why is Clarke even thinking of a u-turn?

Vast numbers of otherwise law-abiding people would be needlessly criminalised
It's tempting for a political cynic to see this as a response to new Tory leader David Cameron's recent indications that he would consider downgrading ecstasy. If even the Tories are going to move to the liberal centre ground on drugs then Labour has to have somewhere to go, and since the cuddly Liberal Democrats have long supported decriminalisation, there is nowhere left but shooting off East into the right-wing. They can be tough on drugs, tough on the causes of drugs - in this case sunlight and chlorophyll. Or maybe this is part of the Nanny Knows Best credo that can be seen in almost all Clarke's favourite policies. Drugs Are Bad. Cannabis is a Drug. We Stop Bad Things with the force of our mighty policies. Open the statute book. Or perhaps the Brave New Community is threatened by individual pleasures, and when everyone is your neighbour, every vice is a crime, you are your brother's keeper - so like it.

Whatever the reason, this is near-insanity. Given how many people used cannabis before downgrading, reclassification is obviously, blatantly, nose-on-your-face, ipso facto not going to work. It will only bring us back to where we started with vast numbers of otherwise law-abiding people, many of them young, needlessly criminalised; with the police going back to enforcing a law that few care about; with the risible right suggesting stupidly harsh policies on drug possession only to be embarrassed by their own party members talking frankly about their own drug use.

Yes, we should have better education of young people on the effects of drugs, which the committee recommended. Yes, we should continue to investigate the links between cannabis and mental illness, and warn users that they may be storing up trouble for themselves, which the report recommended. No, we shouldn't increase the penalties for possession and trafficking to 14 years and life. And nor should we make people into criminals, not - especially not - if they turn out to be mentally ill as well. Oh dear.

Jamie Douglass worked as an intern at spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) 'We misled public over downgrading cannabis - Clarke' The Times, January 5 2006.

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