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What Are You On, Minister?

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It is no secret that the Home Office minister Caroline Flint is a tough
nut. When she and her boyfriend found themselves in a bank hold-up in 1994,
the duo tripped the fleeing gunman, hit him on the head and held him down
until the police arrived. Last week she was experiencing a series of more
bruising encounters as she tried to sell the convoluted logic of the
government's plan to downgrade cannabis to the status of a drug no more
dangerous than painkillers.

The confused message of this initiative is that cannabis is less harmful
than previously thought and those caught smoking it will probably be let
off with a caution; hence a UKP 1m campaign to proclaim that the drug is
both harmful and illegal. Baffled yet? Flint, a raven-haired Londoner who
became a minister only seven months ago, is unruffled by these
contradictions. During our interview, she shrugs off that morning's
condemnation of cannabis by the British Medical Association (BMA)and
alarming new evidence of links between it and mental illness.

Behind this apparent disregard for public concerns lurks a larger Home
Office agenda that would be instantly comprehensible to the hookah-smoking
Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland but is not easily grasped by normal mortals.

What, for example, is the real reason for the government's decision to
reclassify cannabis from a class B to a class C drug, putting it on a par
with painkillers, steroids and tranquillisers? Why open this can of worms,
provoking Michael Howard to pledge that a future Conservative government
would reverse the legislation?

Flint begins with a patter about police being liberated to tackle hard
drugs. "We know the use of class A drugs -- cocaine, heroin, crack --
causes the most amount of crime. They are also the drugs of which violence
is often a common feature, in terms of organised crime and other criminal
activity."

This suggests cannabis users should be left alone because they are too
spaced out to disturb the peace. But, paradoxically, her main preoccupation
seems to be with explaining the relative "harms" of cannabis and class A
drugs to the young. "If we're going to have an engagement with young
people, it has to be one that is honest and credible about the different
harms that these drugs pose for them," she says.

In a month-long campaign in newspapers, radio stations and leaflets,
children will be told that hard drugs are more harmful than cannabis,
although the latter has health consequences. These facts might seem
self-evident to the young who, as the 42-year-old minister admits, "know
about drugs because they're using them" . Like "totality", "harms" is one
of those words in the government lexicon that has shades of meaning. Flint
asserts that alcohol and amphetamines are "worse" than cannabis. But there
is no ambiguity about the BMA's alarm at the drug's reclassification. Last
week the association said the move, due to come into effect this week, sent
out "all the wrong messages" to people thinking of experimenting with drugs.

Another warning comes from Robin Murray, head of psychiatry at the
Institute of Psychiatry, who says people who use cannabis in their teens
are up to four times more likely to develop psychosis, and that in one
study up to 80% of new psychotic cases used cannabis.

When I mention this, however, Flint switches to denial mode. "If people
have mental illness problems and they are abusing substances such as
cannabis or legal drugs such as alcohol, then there are dangers,
particularly if they are not following courses of treatment or other forms
of medication that have been prescribed for them."

Isn't she overlooking four studies, cited by Murray, showing that use of
cannabis, particularly in young people, can significantly increase the
likelihood of the onset of psychosis?

Flint is not buying it. "Often people who develop mental illness later in
life as a young adult are involved in risk-taking activities such as
alcohol and other drugs as well," she insists. So it's okay to encourage
them to smoke pot then?

Is the government acting on out-of-date information? Murray claimed there
were no psychosis experts on its advisory committees. Flint swears
otherwise. However, the next day the Commons committee that endorsed
reclassification said that because of the new research it would rethink the
decision this year.

Flint places much faith in a schools education programme to get over the
message that under-18s will still be arrested for possession. According to
a government survey last year, nearly half of 15-year-olds have tried drugs
and one in five is a regular user. Of this age group, 45% said they had
tried cannabis, sniffed glue or used harder drugs and one-third claimed
they had taken cannabis over the previous year.

Young people are not noted for heeding campaigns aimed at them, or for
reading the small print. For them, the bottom line is possible arrest if
caught smoking openly, followed by a caution.

But doesn't the new law also send a message to the police, telling them to
turn a blind eye? Flint says not: "If you are under 18 and a police officer
finds you have cannabis on you or you're smoking cannabis in the street,
they will arrest you and take you to the police station. The police wanted
to retain that power."

Could the government's "engagement with young people" have anything to do
with Labour looking cool to the younger generation? After all, the
glamorous and youthful Flint has readily admitted that she smoked cannabis
while a student at the University of East Anglia in the early 1980s. These
days Flint claims she didn't like the taste and the fact that it was
illegal acted as a "brake".

If the fear of arrest stopped her, shouldn't today's students be similarly
deterred? Under the new law, simple possession will lead only to a caution
and confiscation of the drug, unless the offender commits an act of public
disorder.

She is puzzlingly adamant that the key deterrent was not her possible
arrest. "It was the fact that the drug was illegal. And I didn't like the
scene around it, to be honest. I didn't know if you were locked up or
cautioned or whatever."

Flint steps back from agreeing that her spliff has given her street cred,
but admits coyly: "I think it gives me a little bit of understanding about
what young people go through and what they're tempted by."

She is surely aware that since her own pot-smoking days the potency of
cannabis has greatly increased? Street-bought skunk can be five times as
strong as traditional grass and can leave users incapable rather than
mildly befuddled. A rash of former liberals have come out in print to
detail their own children's bad experiences of this.

But Flint is dismissive: "It is important to get across that sometimes when
a drug is more powerful, it doesn't mean necessarily that someone has more
of that drug. They take the drug to get the effect they want and if they
get the effect quicker they will need less of that drug." Tell that to the
kids who smoke skunk like cigarettes.

It turns out her stance is underpinned by a certainty that, like her, "the
vast majority of people who have tried cannabis at one point in their life
do not progress to other drugs and most of them give up cannabis anyway.
You grow up a bit, get on with other things in life".

This does not quite square with her assessment that most cannabis use is
not recreational, but to "anaesthetise" people against poverty. "A common
feature of people who misuse drugs is low self-esteem and lack of
aspiration," she says. Such people might not throw off the habit so easily.

Her "passing fad" theory will probably not find favour with many experts
who tend to see cannabis as a "gateway" drug to harder substances. But it
helps explain government thinking about the many, not the few, in the
reclassification. Flint spells it out: "They (advisers) looked at the
majority of people affected and the outcomes of cannabis use against a
minority for whom cannabis could lead to a psychotic episode or worsen the
situation if they have mental illness. They had to weigh those issues up."
But shouldn't she be protecting the vulnerable?

Much of the publicised change is semantic. In 2000, 70,306 people were
dealt with for possession of cannabis, of which 33,725 were given cautions.
The courts fined 19,413, another 5,754 were discharged, 2,320 were given
probation or community orders and 2,124 were imprisoned. Under the new law,
over-18s can be imprisoned for two years, reduced from five years, but will
probably escape with a warning.

On my way home -- assaulted by fuzzy thinking -- I remember Alice in
Wonderland. "'You'll get used to it in time,' said the Caterpillar; and he
put the hookah into his mouth and began smoking again."


Pubdate: Sun, 25 Jan 2004
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Contact: letters@sunday-times.co.uk
Website: The Times & The Sunday Times