One of the first big stories I ever covered as a reporter concerned cannabis back in the early 1960s.

I was working in Notting Hill where West Indians who liked the drug used to hold pot parties every month.

They would commandeer an empty house, play loud music and smoke cannabis, much to the annoyance of neighbours who liked neither the noise nor the smell, both of which were considerable.

Charges were levied for admittance.

Somehow I managed to get into one of these parties and filed reports for the local paper. They caused a small sensation with questions asked in Parliament.

How long ago this all is is shown by the fact that cannabis was then known as Indian hemp and most people had never heard of it. What's more, the admission to those parties was only half a crown, just twelve and a half pence in today's currency.

I shall never forget the sweet, sickly odour of cannabis which pervaded the huge houses or the sound of the music that could be heard 400 yards away. Police in Notting Hill took firm action and eventually the parties become too hot for organisers to handle.

When I came to Brighton in 1967, a charge of possessing cannabis was still a big news story. As a freelance reporter, I could usually guarantee a news item on regional TV for someone being fined the then standard rate of UKP25.

The prevailing establishment view, even in the swinging sixties, was that all drugs are bad, even those like cannabis widely perceived to be less harmful than heroin or cocaine.

But in that same year, West Sussex was at the centre of a case which changed the national perception of hard penalties against drug use.

Police raided Redlands, the country home of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, arresting him for allowing cannabis to be smoked on his premises and lead singer Mick Jagger for possessing four amphetamine tablets.

Both men were jailed amid widespread protests, some from unlikely quarters such as The Times.

The then editor, William Rees-Mogg, penned a famous editorial headed: Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? using a quote from Pope to make his point.

The sentences were quashed on appeal. Jagger is now a knight and a member of the cricket-loving establishment. Rees-Mogg is a peer. Police usually turn a blind eye towards the possession of many drugs regarded as minor.

Among them is cannabis, which has been graded at the lowest level of class C following a decision by the Labour Government.

You can sometimes see it being smoked openly in the streets of tolerant Sussex towns. The drug is easy to buy and it is cheap.

The establishment view has changed so much over the past 40 years that cannabis possession is widespread with smokers knowing there is little chance of their being prosecuted.

Police tend to go for the suppliers rather than the smokers, concentrating their effort on dealers, cannabis factories - such as the one seized in Moulsecoomb yesterday - and cannabis cafes such as the infamous one in Worthing. But the pendulum is swinging back the other way and the Government is recommending that it should be a class B drug once again.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is to strengthen penalties for having the drug, increasing the maximum jail sentence from two to five years.

In doing so, she and the Government are going against the review of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs which concluded cannabis should remain in class C.

I am firmly in favour of treating cannabis as a serious drug. For too long it has been regarded benignly as a substance which merely sends smokers into a happy, almost dreamlike state.

Its supporters say it is less addictive than tobacco and less likely to make people violent than alcohol.

Both these statements are probably true but are not reasons in themselves for condoning its use. I went to plenty of parties in the 1960s and 70s where people in Brighton and Hove spoke what they believed to be beautiful thoughts while lying spaced out on the floor.

Usually they were prattling mindless rubbish and the parties were deeply dull to anyone not smoking the ubiquitous weed.

Millions of people have been to parties like that, usually regarding them with a kindly eye. There seemed no harm in a few hippies dropping out and enjoying themselves with pot.

But what has happened to those hippies? Some have given up drugs. Many have moved on to far more dangerous drugs. A few young hippies have become old hippies without ever contributing so much as a bean to society.

The drug has addled their minds.

The advisory committee concludes there is a probable but weak causal link between psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia and cannabis use.

It believes cannabis plays only a modest role in the development of many well known psychiatric conditions.

But that is not the view of many psychiatrists working in Sussex who have to deal with people deeply damaged by the drug. They have no doubt of a strong link between cannabis and mental illness.

Cannabis may not always cause mental illness but there is a strong case for believing it worsens the problem.

A sad example was the suicide of 25-year-old Hamish Donaldson after a long fight against severe psychiatric illness.

Hamish started with cannabis and later took cocaine. No wonder his mother Julia, author of the children's book The Gruffalo, is backing the reclassification of cannabis.

She said: "Hamish had much too much hash and it was horribly demotivating, apart from anything else. I think it did affect him in the long term."

Cannabis is also no good for physical health in that smokers are drawing strong substances into their lungs without any of the filter tips standard on conventional cigarettes.

But the most damning case against cannabis is that it is a gateway drug. I know people will tell me millions of people have used it without ever trying anything else.

I accept this may be so but show me someone addicted to hard drugs and I will show you a former or current cannabis smoker.

Hamish Donaldson is a classic case.

Drug taking is almost out of control among many people, not only in Brighton and Hove where it might be expected, but also in small towns and villages.

There is a serious argument which I respect for legalising all drugs and lessening the crimes they provoke. But this would only increase their use by making them semirespectable.

We can never return to those innocent days almost half a century ago when cannabis was almost unknown. But we should no longer be tolerant of a drug which causes harm in itself and leads many people on to drugs which are even more dangerous. A crackdown on cannabis smokers as well as dealers may seem draconian but without one group you will not have the other. It will not break a butterfly upon a wheel but it will stop us making a hash of our attitude towards cannabis.

Source: Argus, The (UK)
Copyright: 2008 Newsquest Media Group
Website: The Argus - Brighton Hove & Sussex, news, sport, what's on, jobs, cars, homes, Festival & Fringe