Newshawk: Martin Cooke
Pubdate: Tue, 13 July 1999
Source: Independent, The (UK)
Copyright: 1999 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Address: 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL
SCOTLAND'S GOING TO POT
JUST TWO months into the Scottish Parliament and the entire nation is
going to pot. The latest in a long line of public figures to declare
himself in favour of the legalisation of cannabis is Lord McCluskey, a
senior Scottish judge.
Speaking at the Law Society of Scotland's 50th anniversary conference
in Edinburgh, he called for a Royal Commission to be set up to
consider the decriminalisation of cannabis and to reassess the
sentencing of drug offenders. His argument, couched in vivid terms
which compared 25-year sentences for cannabis trafficking with
five-year sentences for rape, is that prison terms are failing as a
deterrent, and that since there is a large body of evidence suggesting
that cannabis is not a danger to life, the police should be freed up
to concentrate on bringing to justice hard drug dealers and users. The
Labour MP and veteran pro-cannabis campaigner Paul Flynn backed up his
view, asserting that the numbers of people convicted of cannabis
offences were enough to fill four and a half prisons.
While McCluskey's remarks would be notable enough in isolation, they
come in the wake of a recent plethora of unorthodox statements on
cannabis use from all kinds of interested professionals in Scotland.
Last week the BMA conference rejected a motion from the Scottish
Committee on Public Health Medicine which suggested that cannabis
should be legalised for medical use. The BMA had voted last year for
trials to be undertaken to research this very idea. Since these trials
don't start until October, it would have been rather precipitate to
carry this motion anyway.
But, while this motion was defeated by just nine votes, it was the
committeee's other motion that came as the real shocker. Led by
chairman Dr George Venters, the BMA Scottish committe members became
the first medical professionals to make an official call for cannabis
to be legalised for recreational use. Their argument was quite
different from that of Lord McCluskey, focusing as it did on the issue
of drug education.
Dr Venters believes that the classification of cannabis alongside
Class A drugs as illegal leads young people into believing that
"taking hard drugs is no more dangerous than smoking a joint." He
suggested that the fight against drug use is only hampered by that
inclusion of cannabis with other drugs, robustly declaring that "if we
want to be listened to we cannot talk a lot of nonsense. This
undermines our ability to engage with young people when we are trying
to promote a strategy that will minimise the harmful effects of drugs."
Even senior mavericks in the police force have been speaking up in
Scotland over the last few weeks. During a recent conference attended
by social workers, police and prison service professionals, Pat
Chalmers, a Liberal Democrat councillor and the convenor of the
Grampian Police Board, asserted that the "blunderbuss" anti-drugs
message promoted by the Government was not working.
Comparing the outlawing of cannabis to the prohibition of alcohol in
the United States in the Twenties and Thirties, Chalmers said that he
believed Government policy "shortchanged our young". He added: "To use
the drug of their choice we oblige them - and that is now over 50 per
cent of our teenagers - to risk violence, disease, undetermined
quality and strength, and of course criminality."
This stand inspired Lothian and Borders Deputy Chief Constable, Tom
Wood to speak out in support. The senior police officers said that he
hoped that the Scottish Parliament would have the "courage" to take a
fresh approach, adding that the Parliament provided a "golden
opportunity" for such a debate. He also added that "it is an academic
point. No politician in the national forum has the courage or stomach
to take on the fight".
On that final point though, he is wrong. The fact is that Tom Wood's
comments would have reached many sympathetic ears in the Scottish
Parliament. For it too has already provoked controversy over this very
issue. While the views of the Scottish Parliament's presiding officer
are well-known - David Steel came out in favour of decriminalisation
after his son Graeme was jailed for nine months for growing pounds
30,000 worth of cannabis - the deputy first minister, Liberal Democrat
Jim Wallace, is also liberal in his opinions about cannabis. His views
are couched in colourful terms - he compares putting drug offenders in
prison to putting alcoholics in a brewery, asserting that "our prisons
are so riddled with drugs that it is one place you can be sure drug
offenders will be unable to kick their habits."
While Wallace has unequivocably backed the legalisation of cannabis
for medical use, he also wants an investigation into the outright
legalisation of marijuana, in line with the official policy of his
party which has long been calling for a Royal Commission into drug
Since, in his role as justice minister, Jim Wallace presides over
Scotland's drug policy, his influence in the Scottish parliament
cannot be overestimated. It is difficult to see how Donald Dewar can
continue to resist at least looking at a change in Scotland's
anti-cannabis stance when so many senior figures in his coalition
government are in favour of such a move.
In Scotland even the Tories have form on the decriminalisation of
cannabis. In 1994, Michael Forsyth, then Scottish Secretary, attempted
to bring in a fixed penalty system whereby possession of cannabis
would be treated no differently to minor traffic offences and would
not be recorded on criminal records. The Thatcherite libertarian was
blocked by Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, who instead amended
the Criminal Justice Bill to increase the maximum fine for possession
from pounds 500 to pounds 2,500. Forsyth's solution continues to be an
attractive one, at least in the short term. While it would dispense
with the custodial sentences that only serve to clog our prisons and
destroy otherwise blameless lives, it would also provide the strength
of differentiation between hard and soft drugs that is necessary, as
the BMA's Scottish regional committee pointed out, if we are to give
young people drug advice that chimes with their own experience.
While this measure of decriminalisation would not be at all
satisfactory to many pro-cannabis campaigners, it would ensure that
change came slowly, and would avoid some of the difficulties
experienced by the Netherlands in their own legalisation experiment.
This will not satisfy Lord McCluskey and others, who are keen to see
tax revenues raised on the import and sale of cannabis - but many of
Britain's 3 million users may well see that as an advantage. For the
fact is that among those who are against the legalisation of
marijuana, many of the most trenchant are the users themselves. While
a little pot doesn't do much harm, users can be rather wedded to its
illegality, particularly from the fiscal point of view. Cannabis
prices haven't risen in 20 years, which is why no one will mind paying
the occasional fine, rather than coughing up the kind of punitive
taxes that have characterised the battle against cigarettes and alcohol.
No politician is likely to champion the right of pot smokers to avoid
paying tax on this little luxury, for it is the potential for revenue-
raising that will eventually concentrate the political mind. It is
estimated that around 800 tonnes of cannabis are consumed each year by
British users, a figure that is expected to continue to rise.
On the distant day when legalisation eventually does come, it will be
the fiscal argument, more than any other, which will have driven this
radical sea change in the political agenda.
The Independent (UK)