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Thursday, 11 July, 2002, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
The cannabis debate: Ask the experts

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    The Home Secretary David Blunkett announced the downgrading of penalties for the possession and dealing of cannabis on Wednesday.

    The announcement follows a trial in Lambeth, south London, where those found carrying small amounts of cannabis were given a warning by police, rather than prosecuted.

    Figures from Scotland Yard last month showed street crime in Lambeth had fallen dramatically. Scotland Yard's Deputy Commissioner Ian Blair, last week said the pilot scheme was "undoubtedly" beneficial to the police.

    Richard Moore of the National Drug Prevention Alliance and Labour MP Paul Flynn Vice Chairman of the All Party Drugs Committee answered your questions in a live forum.



    The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has today announced the reclassification of cannabis from Class B to Class C - that's the lowest category of illegal drug. The Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith urged the Government to stop and rethink, saying this softly, softly approach is simply handing over drugs policy to criminals on the street. But the Home Secretary insists the policy will free up police time to concentrate on harder drugs like heroin and crack cocaine. I'm joined by Paul Flynn, the Labour MP and Vice Chairman of the All Party Drugs Committee. He joins us from our Westminster studio. I'm also joined by Richard Moore, of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, here in our studio. They are both here to answer some of the thousands of e-mails you've been sending us.

    If I can start with you, Richard. I've got an e-mail here from America, from Staten Island, USA and a second e-mail from a similar theme from Julian Chesterfield in England. Morris in Staten Island asks, do you really think cannabis is more harmful than alcohol and cigarettes? Julian Chesterfield, asks, and how many deaths are caused by cannabis annually compared to those caused by alcohol?

    Richard Moore:

    Well, that's quite simple - you just look at the American figures themselves. This e-mail comes from America. The most recent surveys show that more deaths in the truck drivers are caused through cannabis use rather than in fact by alcohol abuse. You can put it over here into the Health and Safety Executive figures, more deaths are caused on building sites through cannabis use than by alcohol abuse.

    It's easy. The figures are there, but I think the most important thing is do we need to keep looking as these facts and figures all the time. The evidence has been there for years. Paul Flynn himself will know how easy it is to manipulate the figures. At a meeting yesterday he was doing it himself. I could do the same, but I don't think it would be wise to do that.


    Let me move to Paul Flynn. I've got a couple of e-mails which are clearly addressed to your side of the argument. Nick Brecon from the UK, says on what basis does the Government justify the prohibition of cannabis considering that alcohol is legal and kills more people each year than any other drug?

    Paul Flynn:

    On the basis of the daft policies that we have been following for 30 years, there isn't a rational justification. But as you've just heard from the other guest there's a wall of ignorance and prejudice and it has to be countered. And we can only move one step at a time.

    For the last 30 years we've had the harshest drug policies in all of Europe and we have the worst drug outcomes - more deaths, more drug crime and more drug use than anywhere else in Europe. But we've starting to turn the corner and say for the first time that instead of answering drug failures with more policies that are harsh and won't work, we've taken a line that's intelligent, that's pragmatic and I believe it's very courageous. And we'll start to treat people who are using cannabis not as master criminals and sentence them to, possibly up to ten years in prison for goodness sake - 14 years it was previously, it doesn't make any sense. But we'll treat them as people who are using a drug in the same way as others use the far more dangerous drugs of alcohol and tobacco.


    Well, let's take an e-mail from a cannabis user. I'm probably what you would call a recreational cannabis user, says Ben Bonnello in London. I'm very against the downgrade, because having puffed my life away for the last ten years I feel it's affected me for the worse. Cannabis has led me to use coke, pills and acid and I think the Government's making such a mistake and they don't realise what effect this will have on the public. Cannabis is a highly addictive drug. And I want to say that Mr Hellawell - who has resigned today as the Government's drugs adviser - is right.

    Paul Flynn:

    The main thing to be done with cannabis users is to try to separate them from the hard drug market. Now this has been done very successfully in the Netherlands where cannabis has been decriminalised for 25 years now and that's meant that there is less use of cannabis in all sections of society and all age groups and those people who are using it can have their experiments - as they do in this country- but here they are also exposed to those who are pushing the deadly addictive drugs. In the Netherlands they are not and the result is that for every one drug death in Holland - addictive drug death - there are ten here. And so we have a dreadful record. We've not done anything that's worked since 1971. And at last we're starting to get things right.


    Let's bring Richard back into this. An e-mail here from Andrew Fenton in Edinburgh, given that Holland's teenagers are 40 per cent less likely to have tried cannabis than Britain's, and 200 times less likely to have tried heroin, who's policies are more successful, Britain's or Holland's?

    Richard Moore:

    Well then I only have to reply that is why it is the Swedish prime minister who's announced that he intends to close the cannabis cafes. Indeed, as Paul, if he'd bothered to stay for the rest of the meeting yesterday, he would have heard from a gentleman who was a former chief constable of his country turning round and announcing that they are increasing their expenditure on enforcement to a percentage of the crime budget that this country, basically, would refuse to spend that sort of money. There is a serious problem over there. It is not looked at in the same ways as we are looking at it over here.

    What we actually have in this country is the fact that the movement down the grade has kept it in the criminal world because it will still be dealt with by the dealers on the streets, - which is quite obvious in Lambeth - as Iain Duncan Smith saw himself yesterday. And also we have the problem that over in Holland everybody thinks it's legal. Just as the people in Lambeth, lots of the youth think it is legal. In fact it is not legal in the Low Countries, it is just the fact that they choose not to enforce, which of course distorts all figure work. That is why I am so against looking at the facts and figures. Go out and have a look instead of actually going on. Anybody can play with stats, we all know the old figure that there are lies, lies, and damn lies.


    An e-mail from Stuart Evans, London, UK asks: If cannabis is downgraded and no longer illegal, what legislation have we put in place to prevent its use in public places? I've not heard anything about the problems of getting passively stoned - inhaling someone else's cannabis smoke - which could lead to carnage on the roads for example to those who are innocent?

    Paul Flynn:

    The greatest drug success in Europe was Sweden with nicotine. The average deaths from nicotine among women in Sweden is exactly the European average but the deaths among males are half the European average and the reason is that half of Sweden's male smokers don't use smoking as the way of ingesting it - they use snoos, which is ingested in a different way.

    The best step forward we could take would be to persuade those who smoke cannabis to use it in different ways. Now this can be done if we have a market that is decriminalised. We can make people cannabis products that can be used as patches or in drinks or in food and that will remove the main danger of cannabis which is the fact that it is smoked. Once we take the market out of the hands of the irresponsible criminals who are running it now and get it into the hands of people who can be regulated - licensed, we can give the advice. For goodness sake, pregnant women shouldn't use cannabis under any circumstances - we could get it possibly out of the hands of children that way - they have in Holland - and schizophrenics.

    But at the moment we're allowing this most dangerous of substances, cannabis - not as dangerous as alcohol and tobacco - but cannabis and heroin and cocaine - and we're allowing the trade to be run by people who are criminals. The only way to stop that is to collapse that trade by replacing it with a market that can be regulated, policed and controlled then we'll start to reduce drug harm.


    Well that's obviously not what was being proposed by the Home Secretary today. An e-mail now from Paul in the UK who asks: Under these proposals from the Home Secretary, will growing your own cannabis still be illegal if it's only for personal use or for pain relief?

    Paul Flynn:

    Yes it will be because it's not a major change, it's a step. It's a gesture to say that for 30 years we've got everything wrong and we start down the road of pragmatic policies. and the punishment at the moment for certain drug use is crazy. When we think that there are - in spite of what your guest said - no recorded deaths from cannabis but there are 500 from anti-depressants and 600 from paracetamol and 40,000 from alcohol and 120,000 from cigarettes - now which are the dangerous drugs. The main danger that we have from the illegal drugs is the fact they are illegal and they are being manufactured and distributed by criminals.


    Richard Moore, let's turn now to this experiment that's been going on in Lambeth. We've got an e-mail from Mel Smith from Lambeth and she says: I live in the Lambeth area where I see on a daily basis the good results of the pilot scheme. Do you feel that a large amount of this resistance to the reclassification is a general lack of knowledge about cannabis?

    Richard Moore:

    I would certainly agree that there is a massive lack of knowledge about cannabis and I would certainly say that there are people who have varying and differing points of view as to why they would like to have it liberalised - some of which are just purely political even - a liberalistic point of view without any rules in society.


    But do you accept that the Lambeth experiment has allowed police to get on with dealing with the Class A dealers - the guys who are really causing misery in London?

    Richard Moore:

    I think it's quite interesting that if you go just outside the town hall on any night of the week - as I have done - you are offered the hard drugs. What are the police doing? They are not arresting them and it is those dealers who are selling both crack - which is a wicked drug - and I don't think Paul and I would disagree on that along with skunk. It is of varying quality - we don't know what else it's being mixed with because it is illegal and all the time while it is illegal we are not going to be having any sort of controls over it. And it is as was quoted quite clearly by people in Lambeth fairly recently - I wish to take my son out of Lambeth because he is tempted by the 4,000 a week he can earn as an illegal cannabis dealer - not skunk - just straight cannabis was the word, excluding cocaine, because he is fearful of being caught selling cocaine because he will go to prison.


    Alex Benei in the UK asks: What is the aim of our drugs policy? Is it just about saving users from themselves? If so, shouldn't the main tool we use be the legal system?

    Paul Flynn:

    The legal system doesn't work. We've seen what happened in America and in many other countries that have tried to eliminate all drug use. It hasn't happened - in a perverse way it actually increased drug use because it increases the profit of the criminals who are selling it. The only time that cannabis became used recreationally in Britain was when it was prohibited - it wasn't used at all when it was a legal substance. So prohibition actually creates the market and actually does harm in the same way as alcohol when it was prohibited in America.

    But what we've seen in Lambeth is a very successful experiment that's reduced harm and that's the aim. It has reduced street violence. The police have said it's been of great benefit to themselves and it has meant there's been a chance to crack down - not on kids using cannabis - but on those who are dealing in the hard addictive drugs - that's been a great success.

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