The Big Question: Should Cannabis Be Legalised?

Eddie Ellison Retired Detective Chief Superintendent and Former Operational Head of Scotland Yard's Drug Squad

Why is cannabis illegal anyway? The original, American-exported arguments came from the anti-black rhetoric of the Thirties, but the ridiculously exaggerated and embarrassing allegations about the drug failed to be condemned, and prohibition was not abandoned alongside the shameful racism that accompanied it. 

Today, a wide range of policing representatives, respected members of the medical profession, large sections of the British judiciary, most countries of Europe and even the majority of the polled public recognise that continuing to criminalise cannabis use is illogical, futile and entirely unjustified; only the politicians remain fearful of adopting more permissive legislation.  They monotonously continue to condemn youth for preferring a drug that is recognisably less harmful than their parents' alcohol or tobacco; home growers for reducing our trade deficit; and medical users, such as multiple sclerosis sufferers, for responsibly choosing a natural, traditional herb for their bodies.  Simultaneously, they destroy potential careers and waste precious resources within the police, judiciary and laboratories. 

Our cities, our roads, our children and our health would be far safer with a mass migration from today's public houses to tomorrow's cannabis cafes. 

Ann Widdecombe Conservative MP

If cannabis were to be legalised, then all the dealers' profits would come from hard drugs, which they would consequently push much harder.  Furthermore, if it were legal, more people would try cannabis and, as a percentage, find it a gateway to hard drugs - the actual number of people going through that gateway would increase.  Already, the medical profession is sounding alarm bells about the harm done by cannabis, but the lesson of cigarettes and alcohol is that once something is legal, then, no matter how harmful it may subsequently prove to be, prohibition is thereafter impossible.  When I was at university, so little was known about the harmful effects of tobacco smoking that the authorities used to allocate smokers and non-smokers to the same bedrooms.  Keeping the barrier of illegality is therefore essential to the nation's health. 

Baroness Greenfield Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University

Absolutely not.  There is increasing evidence that it affects mental prowess.  The argument that it doesn't kill you, while of course being valid, assumes that that's the only important issue surrounding the use of cannabis.  And for me, almost as important is the issue that we may be compromising people's potential in all kinds of ways, especially the potential of young people; legalising cannabis would help to create a society where people have impaired cognitive skills. 

There is also the increasing evidence that there is a higher incidence of depression and schizophrenia among cannabis users.  Do we want a society in which a large number of people are more at risk of that? As a neuroscientist, I am concerned primarily with mental function and bringing out people's potential as individuals.  If we send out signals that a drug culture is OK, then I think perhaps we are not realising our full spectrum of skills, ability and individuality. 

Chief Superintendent Kevin Morris President of the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales

I believe cannabis is a health problem rather than a legal one, and enforcement of the law, while a necessary measure, will never be a satisfactory solution. 

The Government's decision to inject UKP183m into drug treatment over the next three years is certainly welcome news.  Education must also feature heavily as a tactic in deterring people from using cannabis, but even that is not straightforward. 

Campaigns aimed at "frightening" young people have been proven not to work; they simply do not believe the message.  Perhaps we can learn something from the campaigns that are aimed at drink-driving and tobacco smoking - both of which have been significantly reduced in recent years.  We have not achieved that by banning the use of alcohol and tobacco, or by targeting and arresting adults who use them responsibly, but rather through honest education.  Whether cannabis should have been made illegal in the first place is a debatable point.  Would making cannabis legal now help a healthy-lifestyle campaign? I believe not - it is too late. 

Lauren Booth Writer and Columnist

My views used to be very strongly in favour of legalisation, but now, with time, they have become as unfocused as the Government's.  On the one hand, having smoked it a lot during my life, I can see that it has done me no harm and I've had some fun, and I think it even adds some positive value to society on one level; but on the other hand, a lot of the studies are showing that long-term depression and other illnesses are related to smoking it.  So I think, certainly, get it to MS sufferers, get it to the terminally ill patients, get it to the people with certain cancers, for pain relief.  For the rest of us, I think that just declassifying it rather than actually legalising it is where I stand now. 

Dame Helena Shovelton Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation

Our recent report "Cannabis - A Smoking Gun?" found that smoking pure cannabis can be just as harmful to the lungs as tobacco.  The most important issue to the BLF is that the public are fully aware of the health implications so that they can make an educated decision.  Many people, especially teenagers, believe that cannabis is a healthy, "safe" alternative to tobacco. 

Yet tar from cannabis cigarettes contains 50 per cent more carcinogens than tobacco.  And the health dangers of cannabis have substantially increased since the 1960s, because of the increased amounts of THC in the cannabis consumed today. 

But the BLF report is not about the moral rights and wrongs - or indeed the legalisation - of cannabis.  Rather, it's simply there to make sure that everyone is completely clear about the respiratory health risks involved.  Respiratory health issues are often ignored in the cannabis debate, and the Government needs to consider implementing a public health campaign on the risks before it is too late. 

Commander Brian Paddick Police Officer Who Introduced 'Softly Softly' Policy on Cannabis in Lambeth

The legalisation of drugs is a matter for politicians, not police officers.  The issue for police officers is deciding what policing priorities should be, taking particular account of local views and resources.  Cannabis is harmful and, like alcohol, taken to excess it can be very damaging.  There is a need for reliable, credible and non-judgemental information to be more widely available, particularly to young people, such as the "drug-rap" initiative of DrugScope and the Black Police Association.  Cannabis is clearly not as damaging as other controlled drugs, and, in terms of criminal penalties and its position in the police priority list, it should be lower than heroin and cocaine.  The Home Secretary is making difficult decisions around the reclassification of cannabis to ensure the law is reasonable and credible.  Senior police officers need to be equally brave and make similarly difficult decisions to ensure consistency and proportionality of enforcement. 

Shane Collins Green Party Drug Spokesperson and Licensee of the 5th March and Festival to Re-Legalise Cannabis

Banning cannabis, said the comedian Bill Hicks, is like claiming that nature made a mistake.  Quite apart from being an astonishing act of human arrogance, the anti-cannabis laws also represent a violation of fundamental civil rights. 

It is a simple truth that if you prohibit anything for which there is a demand, you create a criminal market.  That was learnt in the US during Prohibition in the Thirties, and is being painfully relearnt now in the UK. 

Prohibition does not work.  How many more of our young people do we have to criminalise before we realise that? Britain has some of the harshest drug laws in Europe, and yet this country also boasts the highest rates of drug use.  By now, more than half the population should, strictly speaking, be classed as criminals - because they have, at some point in their lives, smoked cannabis.  Yet what the law of the land should do is reflect the will of the people. 

Isis Amlak Mature Student and Mother-Of-Two

We as adults should be allowed to make choices about what we do to ourselves.  People choose to drink alcohol, which is more damaging, and smoke cigarettes. 

I'm not what you would call a strict Rastafarian sister, but I'm conscious of my history as an African person, and I'm aware of the impact of the prohibition on cannabis on my community, on Afro-Caribbean people in particular.  Cannabis is an integral part of the Rastafarian faith.  While these laws are in operation, they give the police more leeway to oppress and persecute black people.  There are also all the medicinal reasons why it should be legalised.  I just see the law as a political tool being used against the people who indulge in cannabis use. 

Itabarica Napthali President of the Haile Selassie Peace Foundation

I don't think there's anything wrong with decriminalising cannabis for medicinal purposes and for people who use it for their spiritual purposes, such as ourselves.  To me, the herb is for the healing of the nation.  I don't think it's something to be smoked in public, like cigarettes.  Especially in the western world, everything is fast, and our minds move so fast that we have to slow down and meditate to become more calm.  Cannabis helps to slow the mind down. 

Lezley Gibson Multiple Sclerosis Sufferer and User of Cannabis For Medical Reasons

Yes, it should.  I got multiple sclerosis 18 years ago when I was 20; I was told that within five years I would be incontinent and in a wheelchair.  I started using cannabis three years later - I'm 38 now, and none of those things has happened to me. 

Before I started using cannabis, I was on the usual downward spiral of MS sufferers, getting worse and worse.  Now I have a quality of life.  I can function and I don't need constant attention.  I feel like a normal human being most of the time - which is a bonus in itself, never mind the fact that it helps with bladder control, bowel control, spasm, pain, my eyesight and speech. 

I smoke three spliffs a day at the most.  People who grow it give it to me.  But I've been arrested a couple of times, and am now a "criminal" who can't get house insurance.  After the first arrest, 13 years ago, I was given a two-year conditional discharge.  The last time, in 2000, I was found unanimously not guilty on the grounds of medicinal necessity. 

Viv Craske Editor of Mixmag, 'the World's Biggest Dance-Music And Clubbing Magazine'

I believe cannabis should be legal for one reason and one reason only: it's really good fun.  Smoking dope doesn't make you run about thinking that the drivel you're talking is deeply profound ( like Ecstasy ), make you spend three hours drawing psychedelic swirls on your knee ( like LSD ) or turn you into a soulless, thieving sociopath ( like smack ). 

Instead, weed makes you piss your pants at Monty Python, stare enraptured at Disney films and walk away from a Radiohead gig believing it has changed your life. 

Cannabis should be legal because it makes serious people silly.  Which is probably why politicians aren't exactly racing to submit that White Paper.  Have a crafty evening spliff and soon you'll be lying on the sofa, ordering a 12-inch thin crust and forgetting all about the stress of your job, your red-lining bank balance and why Tony Blair is such a poor, misguided fool. 

Weed makes you giggle like a carefree eight-year-old and reach profound revelations about life, the universe and everything.  All this for just a UKP12 bag of a naturally occurring herb. 

What The Law Says

The reclassification of cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug will not transform Britain into a smokers' paradise.  Guidance issued to the police ahead of the relaxation of the cannabis laws this year will make it clear that smoking dope remains a criminal offence. 

But instead of arresting first-time users, officers will issue a caution.  Anyone who receives three warnings will be liable to arrest and a conviction leading to a maximum two-year prison sentence.  Juveniles under the age of 18 will face automatic arrest for possession, as will anyone who refuses to surrender the drug if they are asked to by police. 

In the meantime the current law remains in force; a serious case of possession can incur a five-year jail sentence and a discretionary fine.  And even after reclassification, as a Class C drug, the offence of supply will still attract a maximum sentence of 14 years. 

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