The government have scored another victory in its battle with the evil weed. Jacqui Smiths decision to reclassify cannabis from class C to B -despite the explicit advice of its own experts, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to keep it at C - was supported in the Lord's yesterday, the final potential hurdle before the reclassification takes effect in January.
In a last-ditch attempt to postpone the change, Molly Meacher called a debate in the Lords arguing that not only is the move ill-advised, as use has in fact fallen since the drug was downgraded in 2004 and therefore ironically the shift could lead to increased use, but also this change in the law will lead to more young people being criminalised unnecessarily.
Meacher’s arguments are supported by a group of scientists in a widely reported letter to the Guardian. They urged Peers to maintain the trend of evidence-based policy-making by supporting Meacher's amendment. She argues that cannabis should remain class C and that the evidence should be further reviewed by the ACMD in two years time.
Some highlights from the House of Lords Debate include:
Lord Ramsbotham: “One reason why I am strongly behind my noble friend Lady Meacher on this issue is that I hate the thought of large numbers of our young people being wrongly criminalised for being in possession of cannabis, with all that a police record means for their future.”
The Earl of Onslow: ‘Some 10 years ago I was invited on to the programme ‘Have I Got News For You.’ Not long before I had said in public that I was pro the legalisation of drugs. The man chairing the programme, Mr Deayton, who I think later had to resign when he was caught using cocaine, said in a perky way, “Of course, Lord Onslow, you are pro drugs, aren’t you? I answered by saying, “I am going to respond to the question seriously because the issue is too important for flippancy. Drugs are by far the greatest social problem in the country and they result in the greatest amount of crime.” The policy we have in place at the moment obviously does not work… If we go on with our present drug policies, the prisons will be full and we will produce markets for the ungodly to get rich, and thus continue to cause serious social damage. Incidentally, the whole audience clapped loudly and clearly at my answer. To think that the public take the view of the Prime Minister is not very well informed.”
In the end, the House of Lords voted by a majority of 52 against the amendment, which, whilst a disappointment for fans of evidence based policy (at least in the context of a hopelessly malfunctioning classification system ) does at least mean that the endlessly tedious cannabis classification debate wont drag on for another two years and we can get back to talking about more important things, not least the wider failings of the UK's drug enforcement strategy.
Hopefully for (almost) the last time, Jacqui Smith responded with her now familiar line on the subject:
“This is the next step towards toughening our enforcement response - to ensure that repeat offenders know that we are serious about tackling the danger that the drug poses to individuals and in turn communities. We need to act now to protect future generations.”In stark contrast to the rather depressing tale of political posturing taking place in the UK, the Dutch continue to lead the way in rational thinking towards drugs. This week an article in The Independent reported that the Dutch are planning to set up a cannabis plantation to supply cannabis to coffee shops throughout The Netherlands. This is an attempt to solve the ’back door’ problem (it is legal to buy up to 5g of cannabis, but the cultivation and supply of cannabis to the coffee shop remains illegal), which has resulted in an illicit industry worth around 2billion Euros.
Rob de Gijzel the Mayor of Eindhoven commented: “It's time that we experimented with a system of regulated plantations so we can have strict guidelines and controls on the quality and price… Authorities must get a grip on the supply of drugs to coffee shops”How this will work in practice regards international law remains to be seen, and the plantation plan will now go to the Dutch cabinet, and undoubtedly faces bureaucratic and political hurdles. Illustrating some of these tensions, elsewhere in the Netherlands the Amsterdam city council announced last weekend that 43 of 228 coffee shops must close by the end of 2011 because they are within 250m of a school. This tightening of the coffee shop system does not, however, threaten the general approach of tolerance and regulation of cannabis supply, which maintains a broad consensus of support from local and national politicians as well as the public, despite vocal dissent from some.
Switzerland is preparing to take a step further with a national referendum next week to move to a system of legally regulated production and supply of cannabis.
It all seems some way away from the UK where we are still obsessing over whether the sentence for cannabis users for should be 2 or 5 years.
for more on cannabis and classification see previous post