UK: OPED: A New Political Generation Is Ending The Cannabis Taboo
Newshawk: Eric Ernst
Pubdate: Fri, 28 Jan 2000
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd
Address: PO Box 496, London E1 9XN, United Kingdom
Fax: +44-(0)171-782 5046
Author: Mary Ann Sieghart
Bookmark: MAP's shortcut to UK items:
A New Political Generation Is Ending The Cannabis Taboo
You're Only As Old As Your Reefer
What I like about Labour's attitude to drugs is that they say one thing and
do another. They say they are acting tough, when in fact they are focusing
more on treatment than punishment. Mo Mowlam says she tried cannabis and
disliked it, when we all know that, like most fun-loving people of her
generation, she must have enjoyed her toke or three.
Attitudes to drugs - and cannabis in particular - are cast along
generational lines. The last Government was made up of politicians brought
up in the 1950s, for whom it was a scary, alien substance. I can no more
imagine John Major smoking dope than I can imagine Mo Mowlam hating it. It
was not just because they were Tories that they opposed any relaxation in
the laws. I find that my liberal views are shared with more younger
Conservative MPs than older Labour ones.
The cusp comes round about 50 years of age. Dr Mowlam, who turned 50 last
year, is one of the oldest ageing hippies in the Cabinet. Jack Straw, a
visceral anti-legaliser, is on the wrong side of 50. So are David
Blunkett, another social conservative, and John Prescott. Only Clare Short
jumps the age barrier, by calling for a debate on legalisation from the
other side of 50.
The other factor is political ambition. Those who knew from their early
youth that they wanted to run the country might well have been more
circumspect. No surprise, then, that Jack Straw addressed his first
political meeting at 13, or that William Hague was staider than staid at
Oxford. Tony Blair, meanwhile, had no interest in politics at university
but grew his hair and played lead guitar in The Ugly Rumours.
Whether he inhaled or not, I have no idea. But I am sure that he does not
share Mr Straw's instinctive antipathy to liberalising laws on cannabis.
He merely worries about what Middle England might think. If he has pressed
Dr Mowlam to tone down her enthusiasm for legalising marijuana for medical
use, it is not because he thinks such a policy is intrinsically wicked, but
because it could be caricatured by the Daily Mail. And that, as we know,
is a critical test for government policy.
You might have thought that an administration led by a Mick Jagger wannabe
(age 46) would be more sympathetic to legalisation. With the critical
exception of the Home Secretary, it is - but it still believes that it
cannot be seen to be. I get the odd nod and a wink about this being
"something for the second term". But the first term is still dominated by
the desire to prove what they are not.
Mr Blair has had to show that he is not soft on defence, not a high
tax-and-spender, not in the pocket of the unions - and not an irresponsible
dopehead. But the position for his generation, both here and in America,
is becoming unsustainable. They think they have to claim either that they
smoked and did not inhale (Clinton); that they did not smoke but if they
had, they would have inhaled (Blair); or that they did inhale but they did
not like it (Mowlam). When will a politician admit not only that they
smoked but that it was fun?
You can see these people not so much inching as millimetring their way
towards a more sensible policy. Dr Mowlam thinks cannabis should be
allowed for the terminally ill - only they, it seems, will not be gripped
by reefer madness. The Liberal Democrats think they are brave in calling
for a royal commission, though many of them privately would be happy to
What they all want is the cover of respectability. And that is arriving.
The Police Foundation report on cannabis is imminent, and likely to call
for a softening in the law. Cleveland's chief police officers this week
backed legalisation and a royal commission.
Actually the cover has been there all along. In 1970 Richard Nixon
appointed a commission to study the health effects, legal status and social
impact of cannabis use. To his horror, it concluded that the drug should
be decriminalised. A decade later, the US National Academy of Sciences
studied the health effects and also recommended decriminalisation. The
Lancet agrees, and was confident enough to declare recently that "the
smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health".
It is demographics that will soon make such a policy politically palatable.
A senior Liberal Democrat told me last week that drug legalisation, along
with housing, was the main subject broached by his young constituents. As
the 1960s generation takes power, in Westminster and elsewhere, the taboo
Already The Mirror has backed liberalisation of drug laws. A reader
phone-in by The Sun found 70 per cent thought Dr Mowlam was not wrong to
smoke dope. Its white van men say variously that MPs should take more
drugs to improve their policies; that legalisation would cut out the
dealers; and that cannabis is good because it is cheaper than alcohol. The
Daily Mail may be edited by a man with unreconstructed views, but his
proprietor is a 32-year-old whose attitude to marijuana is, I imagine, more
liberal than that of his father.
Cannabis smoking is following the same political trajectory, 40 years on,
as homosexuality. Lots of people do it; fewer and fewer think that it
should be illegal; and politicians are behind the curve, the last people to
"come out". We shrugged our shoulders when Nick Brown said he was gay. If
Mo Mowlam showed her famous candour by conceding that cannabis was pretty
harmless fun, I suspect the reaction, to Mr Blair's surprise, would be much
The Times (UK)