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Stay Cool On Cannabis

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Michael Howard signalled his wish this week to divert a wide swathe of
police officers from serious offences to the trivial; to wage war on 50% of
young people; and to ensure that tens of thousands of them should be given
a criminal record, and some a prison sentence, for an activity that more
than two million of them engage in quite safely during the year. He did not
quite put it this way.

Indeed, with his usual eager eye for an opportunistic response to a policy
change, he clearly thought he was on to another populist winner. He pledged
that a future Conservative government would reverse the new drugs policy
that starts next week, under which cannabis is made a less serious offence.
The pronouncement came as rumblings against the change, that was debated at
length and passed into law only last year, continued to roll.

Mr Howard ought to have been more circumspect. His opposition to the change
will not be as popular as he believes. Opinion polls have shown widespread
public support: 60% believing cannabis should no longer be treated as a
criminal offence; and 99% placing arrests for cannabis possession in the
lowest police priority. The policy change still leaves use of the drug as
an offence, but downgrades the drug from B to C, the lowest category,
making it a non arrestable offence for over-18s, that will normally be
dealt with by an informal warning.

There are two ways to make drugs policy. The first is to follow political
instincts as Mr Howard did this week. The second is to allow experts -
medics, pharmacologists, treatment specialists - to place drugs into the
three categories of harmfulness that the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 set
out. This is the road which, to his credit, the home secretary is
following. The proposal to downgrade cannabis was not some whim of David
Blunkett's, but the recommendation of an independent commission in 2000.
They rightly concluded that the decision to place cannabis in the middle
category of harmfulness 30 years ago did not reflect current scientific,
medical or sociological findings. They did not say it was risk free. There
is a danger with all drugs. But they concluded: "When cannabis is
systematically compared with other drugs against the main criteria of harm
(mortality, morbidity, toxicity, addictiveness and relationship with
crime), it is less harmful to the individual and society than any of the
other major illicit drugs, or than alcohol and tobacco." The policing of
the old law - 300,000 stop and searches a year - has done far more harm
than the drug.

Pubdate: Sat, 24 Jan 2004
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Contact: letters@guardian.co.uk
Website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardian/