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The cannabis debate: puff and nonsense

What's behind the UK government's 'rethink' of the dope laws?

Jamie Douglass

Topics Politics

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Once again, the issue of cannabis has raised its pointy fronds as UK home secretary Charles Clarke orders a ‘rethink’ on the current laws (1). At first glance, one might wonder why politicians have spent so much time over the past few years debating the legal status of a naturally occurring substance that happens to make people high when they smoke it.

This time it was because the mental health charity Rethink decreed that smoking the herb raises the risk of schizophrenia, or psychosis, or something (2). To be fair, the charity doesn’t seem to be sure which one it is; ‘psychosis’ certainly makes for a better headline – possibly because there is no horror film called Schizo – but reading any of the statements, the more frightening illness gets dumped the second they start talking figures. And even then, there isn’t much of what one might call ‘evidence’.

Even the most cursory swatch at this report reveals that: a) the study is being called for, it hasn’t been done; b) ‘most medical experts agree’ that smoking cannabis does not cause mental illness; and c) even when masquerading under the headline ‘Cannabis raises risk of psychosis’, it only does so in people who were predisposed towards psychosis anyway (3). The only attempt at evidence came from campaigner Terry Hammond, whose son Steve developed schizophrenia after smoking cannabis. But while we can sympathise with the suffering of Mr Hammond and his family, ‘hav[ing] no doubt that…cannabis…triggered it’ isn’t really evidence of a link.

The medical angle is pursued sooner or later in most vice-related issues. After it became apparent that some people quite liked getting drunk the doctors were chased to find a link between binge drinking and health problems. When Ecstasy became the drug of choice of young people, who proved curiously unresponsive to naive or fabricated reports of juvenile bacchanalia and how-terrible handwringing, the death stats were wheeled out – a bit of an own goal when they were compared to other death statistics and found to be on the small side. A rise in incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has inspired calls for both a lot more or a lot less sex education, depending on whether people think knowledge or ignorance is the best defence. Now it’s dope’s turn.

This is cynicism of a particularly insidious kind. If one examines the language set rather than the thinly spread ‘facts’, the supposed moral impetus behind the medical reports starts to show like a forgotten undercoat. Witness Dr Thomas Stuttaford in The Times (London): ‘Most medical practices have had patients who were young, bright and amusingly bizarre who appeared to have a good future awaiting them, only to have it dashed once they started to smoke marijuana.’(4) You can almost feel the words ‘dope fiend’ bulging behind the nib.

When the government downgraded cannabis it made a courageous but sensible move. It would be nice to see it go further, but this is unlikely – it has used up its bravery when it comes to drugs and nobody wants to be remembered as the politician who made pot legal. The Tories’ attitude is baffling: notwithstanding the many reasons that prompted the change in the law, they have pledged to make cannabis illegal again on the grounds that the current law ‘sends out a confusing message’. Well, sorry, but government isn’t a telegraph company. This is about a rational response to the fact that people recreationally consume a narcotic without indulging in any other criminal behaviour. This is about the difference between vice and crime.

It’s hard to see what any ‘rethink’ on the cannabis laws will produce. I doubt it’s a climbdown or a reversal because that would be unenforceable and pointless, and drag us back to the bad old days of having a law that everyone ignores. On the other hand, I doubt – given the reasons behind the rethink – that this will inspire a further relaxation of the law. And the idea that ‘skunk’ will occupy a ‘higher tier’ than other forms of the drug is unworkable (5) – because then we would have to have a Dope Classification System, together with testing for THC levels (the most dangerous compound in cannabis), a kind of Department of Health scale for how ‘hard’ the drug is. Does the government not know that THC levels vary across all strains?

There is nowhere to go on this issue, and Clarke should remember that from the last time this was raised. He can either go back on his predecessor which, apart from the logistical problems, will ignite jeers from the opposition, or he can legalise (which is unlikely), or he can stir up more mud at the bottom of what is for the moment a fairly placid pond. Forgetfulness, inertia, and pie-in-the-sky theories are not, it would seem, solely the preserve of the stoner, nor are wasting time and money. But at least stoners only waste their own.

(1) ‘Cannabis rethink “not a reversal”’, BBC News, 19 March 2005

(2) Charity Calls for Cannabis Study, BBC News, 19 January 2005

(3) Cannabis Raises Risk of Psychosis, BBC News, 1 December 2004

(4) Proof that Smoking Cannabis can Make You Psychotic, Dr Thomas Stuttaford, The Times, republished on Cannabis News, 6 January 2005

(5) ‘Classification of Cannabis’: letter from Charles Clarke MP to the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs

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Topics Politics

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