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Cannabis: Just A Peaceful Way To Relax Or A Potent Threat?

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After this week's reclassification of one of Britain's most popular drugs,
Alice Thomson spoke to 50 people involved in the debate. She was told of
tragedy, desperation and hope - and found uncertainty among users, experts
and the authorities

"My 25-year-old son sat on my knee and cried. 'I've killed 30 million people
- - I can't get the blood off my trainers,' he said.

"I explained that he hadn't killed anyone, although he did try to stab his
sister once. 'I am Stalin,' he said, as I drove him to the hospital.

"The next night, our elderly neighbours found him climbing a ladder into
their house, half naked. They'd known my son as an intelligent, happy
teenager; now he was a wreck."

Three weeks later, Sara's son shot himself at her brother's farm. "Before he
died," she says, "he became convinced that it was cannabis that made him
feel crazy."

Hamish is a comedy writer who uses cannabis to help him unwind. "Coke gets
me going for a party, and I prefer sharing a joint with my children over a
video than watching them come home drunk," he says. "We should legalise
drugs and spend the money helping the desperate cases in sink estates."

This week, in the first substantial change to drugs laws for 30 years,
cannabis has been downgraded from a class B drug to a class C drug,
alongside tranquilisers and steroids. To counterbalance this, the Government
has said that taking Class C drugs can be an arrestable offence. It has also
promised a 1 million pound campaign on the dangers of drugs.

The police forces I talked to are in chaos as they try to interpret the new
regulations this weekend. Some are continuing with "zero tolerance"; others
will turn a blind eye - just as Commander Brian Paddick suggested after his
"softly softly" approach on cannabis in Lambeth.

Some government advisers want to go one step further, with a review of the
system classifying all illegal drugs, from ecstasy to heroin. One admitted:
"All our narcotics thinking is based on the 1960s and enshrined in the 1971
Misuse of Drugs Act, when drugs were for the rich few. Now they affect
everyone, and the drugs themselves have changed. We need a new way forward."

The question is: have we already gone too far in relaxing our stance on
drugs - or are we still too draconian?

In Britain, four million people a year use one or more illicit drugs, and
are technically breaking the law. A quarter of a million are termed
problematic drug users by the Home Office.

The social and economic costs of drugs have been estimated at 18 billion
pounds a year, and an average of three people a week die of an overdose.
Meanwhile, the Government spends 1.5 billion pounds a year trying to tackle
drugs through law enforcement, education and rehabilitation. Cannabis is at
the forefront of the argument.

A poll for The Telegraph this week showed that the country is almost equally
divided over whether the drug should be decriminalised. The young
increasingly see it as less harmful and addictive than cigarettes, alcohol
or chocolate, yet there is growing alarm within the medical and scientific
professions that it may cause psychosis.

Having talked to 50 of the most prominent people involved in the issue of
drugs, I have discovered that it is often the police who privately call for
decriminalisation while some of the biggest liberalisation campaigners of
the 1970s, such as the former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken (who took LSD to prove
his point), now want a tougher approach.

The former drugs tsar Keith Hellawell is in favour of stricter regulations,
while his former deputy has come to different conclusions. Labour MPs
squabble among themselves, as do Tories. Only the Liberal Democrats have a
coherent legalisation policy.

Addicts call for tougher laws, while parents of some addicts suspect that
their children could have been saved if drugs had been legal.
Pro-legalisation campaigners, such as the journalist Sue Arnold, have
complicated matters further: she changed her mind because her son became
psychotic after smoking cannabis.

The United Nations has rapped Britain over the knuckles for being too
lenient, while the European Union is urging us to join a growing number of
member countries that are lighting up behind the bike shed.

No wonder the Government is in a haze. David Blunkett is now in charge of
rolling out policy at the Home Office, but discussion at Westminster often
gets mired in gossip about which minister smoked what in his or her pipe at
university.

Dame Ruth Runciman - who says "I'm a lifelong druggie" - has been involved
in the drugs debate for 25 years and, as chairman of the Police Foundation
Committee, was one of the first to advise the Government to downgrade
cannabis. She now wants to see ecstasy downgraded from a class A to a class
B drug.

"The war on drugs is unrealistic," she says. "It takes four hours of a
policeman's time to caution a person over drugs use, and that gives them a
criminal record. Eighty per cent of women in jail are there on drug-related
issues. It's a waste of resources and harming vulnerable young people's
lives. We need to concentrate all our money on treatment."

Mr Hellawell has been pushing the treatment line for 10 years, although he
disagrees with Lady Runciman's softly, softly approach. "The
reclassification has given the amber light for legalisers, yet evidence
increasingly shows the dangers even of cannabis," he says.

"You shouldn't drive, use machinery or take exams on it, yet the young now
think cannabis actually helps your driving skills. It's like the difference
between shoplifting and aggravated burglary: just because we need to crack
down hard on violent crime, it doesn't mean that we should allow everyone to
nick stuff."

His former deputy Mike Trace, who now runs the Bleinham project for crack
addicts in Notting Hill, west London, says that it is hard to force people
into treatment.

"You need to give people a choice: stop mugging grannies and get treatment,
or it's jail. I'm interested in legalisation, but if it dramatically
increased numbers, there is no way we could deal with that."

Roger Howard, the head of Crime Concern, is wary of treatment alone. "The
overwhelming majority of serious drug users have lots of other problems.
Banging them up is a disaster, but treatment alone is not enough."

Howard Marks, the biggest cannabis dealer of the 1980s, who was jailed for
drug pushing, believes legalisation is the only way forward. "That would
take much of the sordidness out of the business. Every culture needs
something to numb the drudgery of life."

Andrew Brown has tried everything in excess. "At first, it was just like my
parents having a gin and tonic. A friend at school became psychotic on
cannabis, but I've always kidded myself that heroin is pure.

"By the end, I had pawned everything. I was watching pregnant girls taking
crack, and laughing."

Andrew went into treatment four times. "Treatment is not enough - only 30
per cent complete their course. You need help with jobs and housing
afterwards because the depression can get so bad."

Danny Kushlick, director of Transform, which lobbies the Government for
greater liberalisation, says: "Every time the Government hits down on the
supply side, it just drives the price up and so crime increases. Our policy
so far has been a disaster. We have gone from 5,000 heroin users in 1971 to
250,000 now.

"The only answer is to legalise drugs and reduce demand through education.
Cannabis could be sold through off-licences, and ecstasy and cocaine could
be bought from pharmacists. Boots would be far better than pushers."

Jonathan Yeo, the painter and son of a Tory shadow minister, took cannabis
to fight nausea while recuperating from cancer. "Adults should make up their
own minds," he says. "Horse-riding is dangerous, but we don't ban it."

Fulton Gillespie, whose son died of a heroin overdose, believes that
legalised drugs would have kept him alive. "He died from adulterated heroin.
At least if the Government were in control, we could check the quality."

But Roger Aston, whose son was jailed for life for the death of two war
veterans, says cannabis started his son's descent into crime. He is
preparing to protest against re-classification outside police headquarters
in Birmingham.

Marjorie Wallace, the chief executive of the mental health charity Sane,
agrees that any relaxation of laws sends out the wrong message. "For 17
years, I have been accumulating anecdotal evidence that cannabis may cause
psychosis," she says. "For a small proportion of young people, this drug is
terrifying. It robs them of their souls."

She believes that education alone is not enough. "Those one million leaflets
the Government is now sending out are like flowers on the graves of the
dead. Reclassifying has already sent out the message that cannabis isn't
dangerous."

Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, says the new
change in law has caused "a massive amount of muddle". But the chief
constables I talked to cannot agree on the way forward.

Eddie Ellison, retired head of Scotland Yard's Drug Squad, says: "I'm a
legaliser. More than 50 per cent of crime is from drug abuse. A
200-pound-a-day habit needs 2,000 pounds worth of burglaries a day. We
should hand out hard drugs for free from clinics to addicts - it would cost
us far less."

Chris White, drugs co-ordinator for Tayside Police, says: "The bad buggers
[the pushers] need to be put away for longer, when you see the devastation
they cause."

Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation, admits: "The police
desperately need clarity and a mature debate. We don't want a nanny state,
and after all, alcohol is a greater problem for us. But, at the moment, it
is pandemonium with the new rules."

Jonathan Aitken, who has been in jail, says: "I learnt an awful lot about
drugs in prison - there are hundreds of cocktails circulating with exotic
names, and you can easily come out with a 500-pounds-a-week habit. But I'd
create drug-free wings and use prison to help people off drugs. My daughter
Petrina, who has had a problem with cannabis, has convinced me that
legalisation may not be the way forward."

The British Medical Association is worried that the public is receiving the
wrong messages. "It's bizarre that just as we see cigarettes being banned in
public places, people think they can now smoke cannabis on the streets," one
doctor comments.

The British Lung Foundation is also concerned. Dr Richard Russell, a
consultant in respiratory medicine at Wexham Park, Slough, says: "Three
cannabis joints equal 20 cigarettes. All drugs hit your immune system,
making you more vulnerable."

The medical experts are backed by school teachers. Bob Carstairs, of the
Secondary Heads Association, says: "Downgrading of drugs will be a nightmare
for teachers trying to get the message across to eight-year-olds that
cannabis smoking can harm the body.

"A child's grades can really suffer if he smokes it. Cigarettes and the
occasional alcoholic binge don't affect academic and sporting performance in
the same way."

Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, studies
the effects of drugs on the mind. "I find it extraordinary that we want to
criminalise something as irrelevant as foxhunting, while legalising
something as explosive as cannabis," she says. "Cannabis has a devastating
effect on brain cells."

Hamish Turner, the president of the Coroners' Society, says cannabis is
increasingly the factor behind deaths recorded as accidents or suicides.
Prof John Henry, a toxicology expert at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, west
London, puts this down to the increased strength of the drug.

"Until the early 1990s, there was less than one per cent of
tetrahydrocannabinol in most cannabis. Now the most potent form, skunk,
contains up to 30 per cent."

After hearing the evidence, most MPs on the Home Affairs select committee
thought that cannabis should be downgraded. Some privately advocate
legalisation. But Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for Vauxhall, disagrees.

"My area has been a guinea pig for liberalisation. People started smoking
cannabis on the stairwells, on the street. Elderly people and young mums had
to fight their way through gangs of children high on cannabis."

Her views are backed by the Rev Chris Ande-Watson, a Baptist minister in
Brixton, who says: "Cannabis kills dreams, kills ambition, and - left
unchecked - destroys communities."

Clare Gerada works as a GP specialising in drug abuse in south London. "In
my worst moments, I say legalise and be damned. Then I see a desperate
addict, and realise that our laws may be an ass but they were vaguely
effective. We take the brakes off at our peril."

Others in Brixton say the experiment has been a success. Paul Paine, who
lives on Brixton Hill, says: "The police have been able to concentrate on
the crack and heroin addicts, crime has gone down and there are fewer
nutters on the streets."

It's up to the Home Office now. Which way is Caroline Flint, the drugs
minister, heading? "We have to concentrate on class A drugs. We have no firm
evidence that cannabis causes psychosis," she says.

"We are now spending 500 million pounds a year on treating 140,000 people
and we're providing drugs education for more than 96 per cent of secondary
schools."

For Lilian Barker's son, it might be too late. Her husband died of a heart
attack six months after their son tried to strangle him while hallucinating
on drugs. He has been through three rehabilitation programmes but still
harangues her for money.

"While everyone argues, my son may die," she says. "Until we have a rational
debate, there is only one thing we should all be saying: 'Just say no.' "

Pubdate: Sat, 31 Jan 2004
Source: Daily Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Telegraph Group Limited
Contact: dtletters@telegraph.co.uk
Website: Telegraph