25 January 2004

Cannabis: Discussion deteriorates and Home Office produces its leaflets

Under increasing pressure from the media, drugs professionals, users and the medical profession, Blunkett came out of his bunker with all guns blazing. After he had put both feet in, many in Government may have wished that he had kept quiet and let the more-capable Caroline Flint try and deal with the flack.

On the Today programme, Blunkett said that the cannabis policy that he had implemented would be "transparent, non-variable and understandable." Given that the policy being rolled out is the exact opposite of this, it is hard to fathom if Blunkett is just utterly in denial or is simply unaware of the amount of confusion.

Given a policy that is being interpreted in a different way by individual forces, where ultimate decisions are left to an officer's discretion and has confused everyone, it is hard to see how Blunkett can think that the policy has achieved Blunkett's aims.

But, even more astonishingly, he has already concluded that his approach is right, saying that he is "not prepared to consider reversing it." So no matter what the evidence base, Blunkett has decided that this is the correct approach and he will not be changing it.

It may be indicative of the Home Secretaries increasing inability to grasp these points that, rather than continue to engage with the debate in a meaningful way, he instead launched an astonishing attack on Michael Howard, and asking him to confirm or deny if he had ever smoked cannabis, a question that Michael Howard refused to answer.

This undignified spat put Blunkett and Downing street on the back-foot. Downing Street dismissed it as 'political knockabout,' but others held this up as evidence that the Home Secretary is becoming increasingly gaffe-prone.

Certainly in a week when the Home Secretary was keen to see his Anti-Social Behaviour Act take pride of place in the media, he will not have been pleased to see it knocked into the inside pages while cannabis dominated all the papers.

In this flurry of media coverage, sniping and counter sniping, the Home Office produced its series of leaflets which, according to Caroline Flint, have been extensively piloted.

The leaflets are very poor: the one aimed at children makes no reference to school exclusion; it fails to make it clear that for young people on their second or third offence, they will be refered to the YOT and go to court. And the emphasis is primarily on the good jobs that cannabis could spoil or the holiday abroad. Certainly not the two things that are going to put off young people in Hackney from smoking!

The second leaflet, aimed at adults is, if anything worse. It oversimplifies, contains misleading legal points and forgets to mention things like allowing use on premises. Worse still, although FRANK is branded all over the leaflets, when you phone him he hasn't seen them, and doesn't know what they say.