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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 legalise.

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 will dissolve.

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 same.

The Times (UK)

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