Why New Labour is so dopey on cannabis

The interminable debate about whether dope should be a class B or C drug reveals the government’s incoherence.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

There are plenty of good reasons to legalise cannabis: prohibition has done nothing to limit its use; there’s little evidence to suggest it’s any more damaging to one’s health than other legal drugs; and it ought to be up to people themselves to decide how best to live their lives, whether that’s sober or with a joint stuck to the lip. But perhaps the most persuasive reason for decriminalising cannabis is the sheer relief that comes from knowing that one will never have to go through the tedious should-it-be-legalised debate ever again. Unfortunately, given the British state’s bewildering approach to drugs, especially cannabis, such respite looks unlikely.

Most recently muddying the waters of the government’s already turbid drugs policy has been Professor David Nutt, who, until he was sacked on Friday, was the government’s chief drugs adviser and head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Earlier this year he was downplaying the risks of Class A drug Ecstasy, comparing it favourably to horse riding; then, last week, in a briefing paper titled Estimating Drug Harms: A Risky Business, he argued that last year’s Home Office decision to give cannabis a B classification, rather than the less punitive C classification it then had, was not based on any good scientific or medical reasoning. In fact, Professor Nutt was unequivocal: ‘Overall, cannabis use does not lead to major health problems.’ (1)

It’s all very confusing. Given that the ACMD has been downplaying the harmful effects of cannabis for well over a year, why in the summer of 2008 did then home secretary Jacqui Smith make cannabis a class B drug and, in doing so, reverse her predecessor David Blunkett’s 2004 decision to reduce cannabis’s classification to class C? At the time she justified it in terms of the precautionary principle: ‘Where there is a clear and serious problem, but doubt about the potential harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public.’ (2)

New Labour’s line on cannabis, twisting one way in 2004, twisting the other in 2008, and twisting any way in 2009 is nothing if not perplexing. It’s worth bearing in mind that between 1971 and 2004, various governments were unwavering in their anti-drugs, anti-cannabis stance. The state had a firm line on the weed, and that was that. But under New Labour any state-like resolve seems to have withered with confused and confusing results.

There just seems to be no consistent rationale for the changeable legal status of drugs. Hence in 2006, the science select committee went in search of one, using the overarching criterion of harm, principally health-related, but incorporating so-called ‘social harms’, too: drug-induced violence for instance. They discovered, unsurprisingly, that the existing classification system didn’t make much sense in those terms. As the chair of the committee pointed out, the only way to get ‘an accurate and up-to-date classification system’ was to ‘remove the link with penalties and just focus on harm’ (3). Which, given that alcohol was just behind heroin, cocaine, street methadone and barbiturates, and five drug placings ahead of cannabis in the harm league tables, it meant their proposal just confused matters further. Make alcohol illegal? Legalise alcohol and everything below including cannabis, LSD and ecstasy? Or just stick with the nonsensical, arbitrary approach?

The internal criticisms of government drug policy have just kept coming. In August last year, Julian Critchley, the former director of the Cabinet Office’s anti-drugs unit, called, incredibly, for the legalisation of drugs. ‘I think what was truly depressing about my time in UKADCU’, he leaked, ‘was that the overwhelming majority of professionals I met, including those from the police, the health service, the government and voluntary sectors held the same view: the illegality of drugs causes far more problems for society and the individual than it solves.’ (4) With anti-drugs unit directors like this, who needs scotch-egg-munching Legalise Dope lobbyists?

Nutt’s criticism of the policy of those he was meant to advise, and more importantly whose decisions he was meant to provide with ‘evidence-based’ legitimacy, is just the latest in New Labour’s history of vacillating policy and desperate opportunism. But their approach also betrays something deeper: the inability to say why people should not take drugs, that a life lived without haze is a life lived well. Instead of a moral argument, they have recourse only to the lexicon of harm. Which is why it seems so internally problematic.

Nutt and others have argued that the only issue in relation to drugs is the ‘scale and degree’ of potential harm. But that isn’t the only issue; in fact the scale and degree of harm is not even the critical question and would not justify prohibiting certain substances. As Nutt observed earlier this year, horse riding often leaves people injured. Even jogging, the paradigmatic example of healthy living, would not fare too well on the harm scale, putting undue strain on the heart, damaging knees, and annoying other pavement users. Both class C activities if ever there were ones.

The problem for the bureaucrats of harm is that one person’s harmful activity is another’s meaningful pursuit. Perhaps someone goes jogging because they want to lose weight. Or maybe they simply enjoy the exertion. The same goes for ingesting certain substances. Perhaps someone smokes dope from time to time because it’s relaxing or fun. Perhaps someone else smokes a lot of dope, or indeed drinks a lot of vodka, because reality at that point just doesn’t bear thinking about. But this longing for oblivion, no matter how destructive it might be, will not be solved by prohibition. The only real answer involves making life worth living.

And that’s the problem with the continued criminalisation of drugs. Directionless, and bereft of authority, New Labour can no more say why life ought to be worth living than it could say why drug-taking is wrong. It has no moral or political vision. And without this, prohibition stops making sense. It becomes, like everything else in the contemporary state, a technical matter, a case of calculation and management, in this case the calculation and management of harmful outcomes.

Historically, prohibition (in the main, of alcohol) was not the product of administrators, advisers or select committees; it was born of puritanical censure. If hard work was considered to be good, to be proof of one’s faith, then to sin, to reveal oneself as a sinner, was to be unproductive, to backslide, to live debauched and wastefully. Inebriation was disapproved on the grounds of health all right, but moral health, not physical health. It is this belief in the virtue of a productive, active, striving life, exemplified by hedonistic puritans like Benjamin Franklin, that is missing today. While the state might have inherited the legal, coercive form of abstention, it has none of the moral content, none of the belief in the value and virtue of social life.

Yet this moral vacuum does not just affect the state – it is reflected in the pro-legalisation, dope-is-great lobby, too. When they can tear themselves away from Space Odyssey 2001, campaigners hail cannabis’s sedative effects as if they were positives. ‘Cannabis is well known for its calming effects in healthy people’, proclaims online collective Hempire: ‘It can help with sufferers from aggressive disorders.’ Elsewhere a pro-cannabis petition on the No.10 website points out that cannabis has the effect of ‘pacifying users [in contrast to] the alcohol-fuelled aggression and violence tackled by police in most UK town centres on a weekend’. As Brendan O’Neill has argued elsewhere, the comparison drawn between drinking alcohol and smoking weed is telling (6). Where drink is talked of in terms of disruption, of anger, of physical confrontation, cannabis is praised for its calming, relaxing, reality-obliterating qualities. This is no vision of the good life; it’s a vision of putting up with life, of ersatz escape, and very real acquiescence.

Calling for the legalisation of drugs should not be confused with celebrating them. That drugs can seem so appealing, that a whole venerating culture has been built up around cannabis for instance, rests on a profound disappointment with what a real life ought to, and can, offer. Just as continuing to prohibit drugs will not restore to people’s lives the meaning it has lost, neither will continuing to champion them.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons said drugs should be decriminalised, but not celebrated. Rob Johnston criticised Labour’s schizo drug policy. Neil Davenport called cannabis the political class’ drug of choice. He also asked why everyone loves ‘Dopey’ David Cameron. Jamie Douglass looked at Charles Clarke’s bad trip and drug use in schools. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) Scientists v Politicians: Round 3, BBC News 29 October 2009

(2) Tobacco and alcohol should be classified as more dangerous than LSD, British Medical Journal, 5 August 2009

(3) Julian Critchley: All the experts admit that we should legalise drugs, Independent, 14 August 2008

(4) Johnson sacks drugs adviser who said alcohol was more dangerous than LSD, The Times 31 October 2009

(5) Dope lobby push soviet tactics on drug legislation, First Post, 19 February 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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