British headlines throughout the festive season were full of the scandal of the cabinet minister’s teenage son who sold a lump of hash to a reporter from a tabloid newspaper.
17 year-old William Straw ? a bright student who has been offered a place at Oxford University should he pass his A level exams next Summer ? was introduced to an attractive woman at a south London pub. With little prompting, he sold her 1.92 grams of cannabis resin for &10, saying that it was “good, strong hash” and she should get about ten joints out of it.
Unfortunately for him, Dawn Alford did not work in a local estate agency as he had thought, but is really a Daily Mirror journalist. The newspaper’s editor informed his dad, Jack Straw, England’s hard-line Home Secretary, who marched the young man straight off to the police to confess his crime.
The Straw Man
The exposure of the Home Secretary’s son as a petty dope dealer was pure hubris, since Jack Straw has made a virtue of repeating the Prime Minister’s mantra that the Government will be ‘tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime.’
Ever since he was a student union leader thirty years ago, Straw has consistently argued against the legalisation of cannabis. At the victorious Labour conference last October he reiterated the party line, telling delegates: “We are doing many things to tackle the drugs problem. But let me say what we are not doing: We will not decriminalise, legalise or legitimise the use of drugs.”
Here comes the new boss
1997 will be remembered as a pivotal year in British politics, because the Conservative administration that had governed the country since Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979 was at last voted out of office. The British people demonstrated how heartily sick they were of the Tories, but there is apparently very little to choose between the policies of Tony Blair’s Labour government and their predecessors.
Before they were elected, New Labour refused to allow any discussion of cannabis legalisation within its ranks and promised the creation of an American-style “Drugs Tsar” to coordinate the nation-wide implementation of prohibitionist government policies on drugs.
Once in power, Blair appointed former senior policeman Keith Hellawell, who took up his new post in the first week of 1998. Hellawell’s appointment was cautiously welcomed by cannabis campaigners, since in the past he has suggested that he realizes prohibition isn’t working.
Yet the new Tsar cannot be described as pro-cannabis, and is quick to dismiss any notion of legalisation, calling the issue a “red herring”. He is a seasoned, pragmatic professional who is fully aware of the shortcomings of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA).
The anachronistic and unworkable MDA is in serious need of repair and at least some politicians recognise that. The Liberal Democrat party, which won enough seats to become a force to be reckoned with in the new Parliament, made a manifesto pledge to establish a Royal Commission to consider the drugs question. Some Labour backbenchers have reiterated that call, but the government adamantly refuses to discuss it.
Police Federation inquiry
Even if politicians aren’t yet prepared to face up to the responsibility of reforming the MDA, the police certainly seem to be.
As a result of an initiative stemming from the Police Federation, a new committee of inquiry was set up this year to review the MDA and propose changes. This could be seen as a sort of deniable Royal Commission and is likely to report within two years.
It includes several members who are known to be sympathetic to the arguments for legalisation, and informed speculation (or wishful thinking) suggests that they will eventually recommend the sale of cannabis through chemists to registered users. They may also propose that people be permitted to grow their own, perhaps with a license.
Flynn for Mushrooms
Back in the real world, soon after the Straw scandal broke on Christmas Eve, the BBC reported that Labour MP Paul Flynn, vice-chairman of the All-Party Drugs Misuse Group, had renewed his call for cannabis to be legalised.
Paul Flynn has been a longstanding supporter of a more rational drug policy, and in April of 1997 he half-jokingly called on the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) to give out grants for young people to go into the business of exporting magic mushrooms, which grow commonly in his constituency.
“It is perfectly legal to send them fresh from Wales; nobody is poisoned by them, nobody is addicted,” said Flynn. “Why on earth not exploit the market and get the WDA to give a grant for a few young people to set up a business?”
Popular newspaper “The Independent on Sunday” launched an official campaign to decriminalise cannabis in September of 1997, and Paul Flynn is one of a number of MPs who have endorsed their efforts, and who also turned up to a conference organised by the newspaper, held in December at a no-smoking venue a stoned throw from the House of Commons.
This event attracted most of the usual suspects from across the spectrum of the British cannabis scene: activists ancient and modern; medical users and anxious parents; environmentalists and hemp traders. They heard speeches from a distinguished panel, including Colin Blakemore of the British Neuroscientific Association, John Strang of the National Addiction Centre, and Anita Roddick of the Body Shop, which sponsored the event.
Clare Hodges attended the conference, as did several other MS sufferers and fellow members of the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, who have been the most effective campaigners for legal change in Britain over the past couple of years. Their case, championed in Parliament by Paul Flynn, is morally unanswerable, and politicians are having an increasingly hard time maintaining their line that the medicinal properties of cannabis have not been sufficiently proven for it to be prescribed by doctors.
This has become especially true since September, when the British Medical Association published the report of its working party on cannabis, and came out firmly in favour of providing legal access to those who can benefit from its therapeutic properties.
Sloth and big fat joints
Conspicuous by his absence from the Independent conference was Britain’s most prominent pot smoker, Howard Marks. The former drug smuggler’s autobiography, Mr Nice, has been a runaway best seller, and Marks has been adopted as an avuncular spokesman for those among us who would always rather “skin up” first.
Marks stood for Parliament in several constituencies, principally in Norwich, where he did quite well; he made a TV show extolling Sloth, in which he smoked big fat joints throughout; and he finished the year with a sell-out speaking tour where people paid good money to see him smoke bigger, fatter joints on stage, and read extracts from his book!
The Independent on Sunday ? owned, incidentally, by the same media group as the Daily Mirror ? declared on December 14: “The overwhelmingly successful IoS conference last week put the drugs debate firmly into the public arena. The Government can no longer ignore the demand for a change in the law.”
In response to a request for evidence from the Police Federation Commission, the newspaper has compiled a dossier of research showing why cannabis should be decriminalised. The IoS has also collected 10,000 signatures in support of its campaign for decriminalisation, indicating a consensus among its readers that cannabis is a relatively benign drug and that its continued prohibition is counter productive.
Responsible young drug users
A succession of surveys this year have indicated that taking drugs in general and cannabis in particular is increasingly seen as perfectly normal by the British people. More than a third of teenagers have smoked at least one joint.
In a revealing study published by the Rowntree Foundation, people 16-24 years of age were interviewed, and the results sharply contradicted the stereotype of irresponsible teenage dope fiends.
Most young drug users were found to be sociable and sensible. Most were found to be extremely knowledgeable about the substances they were taking, had given much thought to how their drug use fit into their lives in a larger context, and strongly disapproved of behaviour they perceived as being ‘out of control’.
Would you like some tea, luv?
Most of them probably won’t volunteer to score ten quid of hash for some strange woman they met in a pub, either. It is instructive that no fuss whatsoever was made over the fact that Will Straw drank pints of lager while conducting his dodgy dope deal, despite the fact that he’s underage.
Increasingly, British middle classes are convinced that the ‘crime’ of smoking a joint should be seen as no more or less serious than underage drinking. As Noel Gallagher of British pop group Oasis recently said in an interview, “skinning up” in England is as normal as having a cup of tea.
Association for Cannabis Therapeutics (ACT): PO Box CR14, Leeds, UK, LS7 4XF; fax 3-237-1000