Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Cannabis, the state, and our freedom to choose

The latest British Crime Survey revealed a few weeks ago that drug use generally is falling, and that cannabis use in particular is at its lowest level for a decade. So much for the idea that reclassifying cannabis from a class B to a class C drug would encourage its consumption. But as we know from the Brand-and-Ross affair, on some issues the UK is governed by the baying hounds of the Daily Mail, and this is one of those issues. Thus January will see a reversion from class C back to class B, presumably sending the 'right message' about its use to the thereby infantilised population.

Back in 1995, the argument for complete legalisation seemed to be gathering pace. The Independent said in an editorial on 31 October of that year that it “has long argued for the legalisation and licensing of those drugs that have little or no ill-effect on health if used in moderation, like alcohol, like cannabis and (in all probability) like the dance drug Ecstasy.” In 1997, under the editorship of Rosie Boycott, the Independent on Sunday launched a campaign for the legalisation of cannabis.

Then last year, on the back of scare stories about the claimed increase in potency of the drug and links to psychosis, it melodramtically reversed its position. “If only we had known then what we can reveal today” wailed its editorial, managing to simultaneously bemoan its foolishness and crow about how its 'landmark' campaign “culminated in a 16,000-strong pro-cannabis march to London's Hyde Park - and was credited with forcing the Government to downgrade the legal status of cannabis to class C.”

Rosie Boycott herself is still in favour of legalisation, though she accepted both that 'skunk' is 30 times stronger than ten years previous and that smoking it has strong links to psychosis, looking back nostalgically to the days of harmless joints in the summer of love. In fact, as Ben Goldacre has shown, the 30-times-stronger figure confirms that old adage that you can prove anything with statistics. There have always been a variety of strengths available and shock increases that sell newspapers are the result of not comparing like with like.

As far as mental illness goes, a proper review of the evidence shows a distinctly more complex picture. The actual number of scientific studies which have been done are small, and most of these have found no clear evidence that cannabis taken even in quite large quantities causes mental illness. In fact, the causal relationship may be the other way round with those suffering from mental illnesses taking cannabis because it helps them in some way. There is even some suggestion that in some circumstances cannabis may have antipsychotic properties.

In any case, as Baroness Molly Meacher (who is a life peer-type Baroness and a social worker rather than a member of the aristocracy) points out today, the reduction in cannabis use since 2004 is most likely to be down to the public education campaign launched around the time it was downgraded from class B to class C. And of course, if we were to ignore this and conclude anything simple about the link between penalty and drug use on recent evidence, it would have to be that reducing the penalty reduces use, not the other way around.

There is a wider point here too. Why should the state be allowed to tell us what we can and can't consume where that effects no-one but ourselves? Yes there is a role for education, but not for criminalising the estimated 30 per cent of the population who have taken cannabis at some point in their lives. Unfortunately the libertarians in the Labour party can virtually be counted on one hand.

Thus a socially conservative agenda from the right dovetails with paternalism from the authoritarian centre-left, with the poorest sections of society as the biggest victims. Yes, drug problems affect poor communities worst, but so does the criminalisation of drugs. As Meacher points out “Arrests and convictions make it more difficult for those involved to find and hold a job; more likely that relationships break down; more likely they will have housing problems.”

Meacher is tabling a motion in the House of Lords, calling on the government to halt reclassification pending a new review of drugs policy. I hope they do, though I'm not optimistic. What we need more, however, is a broader debate about the role of the state in determining how we live, and how we can move towards a society of equal and empowered adults.

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