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Newshawk: Martin Cooke 
Pubdate: Tue, 13 July 1999
Source: Independent, The (UK)
Copyright: 1999 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Contact: [email protected]
Address: 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL
Website: http://www.independent.co.uk/

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 use.

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)
99.07.13


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See also: Taima.org news index.
See also: How dangerous is cannabis?
See also: The Cannabis Control Act


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