19 January 2004

Media furore over cannabis legislation

With the reclassification of cannabis only a fortnight away, all sections of the media were running cannabis stories like they were going out of fashion. Indeed, the number of hacks that were walking the streets purchasing cannabis samples either for their own use or for testing must have seen them tripping over each other.

The coverage in the press has been generally critical of the Government's stance. The criticisms are varied according to the political leanings of the source, but primary concerns include:

  • the confusion relating to how under 18s will be treated. The Evening Standard highlighted widespread confusion amongst young people and teachers who were receiving the erroneous impression that cannabis was now legal, and the reality that according to the ACPO guidance they should be arrested under all circumstances;
  • the ongoing debate regarding the relationship between cannabis use and mental well-being. With ongoing research exploring how cannabis impacts on mental wellbeing, many papers concluded (without a robust evidence base) that reclassification would result in an increase in mental illness amongst young people;
  • the fact that police nationally are not sure how the law should be implemented despite the ACPO guidance. The Metropolitan Police have produced their own guidance, described by the Independent as being 'subtly at variance' with the ACPO guidance. Sources within the Met were quoted in the Indy, saying:" Senior Met sources have flagged significant differences between the wording of the recommendations and those issued by the Met to its borough commanders. "The Met guidelines say there is a presumption against arrest. It is urging officers not to make arrests."
A number of high profile figures have started to criticise the way that the reclassification has been pursued. Ruth Runciman is quoted in the Standard as saying "We recommended that the position on cannabis should be that it is no longer an arrestable offence. What Mr. Blunkett has done is to take specific steps to maintain its arrestability. We still have some of the most punitive laws on cannabis in Europe. It is a very confusing situation."

With high levels of criticism of the strategy across the media, it was left to Caroline Flint MP to defend the strategy to the media. Blunkett remained strangely silent throughout. She is by and large in the right; she has inherited a muddle created by Mr. Blunkett and, barring a cabinet reshuffle post-Hutton, it is unlikely that Blunkett will accede to a change in direction now.

With the reclassificatio due on the 29th January, the Government insisted that publiciy material was being prepared by the Mentor Foundation and would be distributed in good time for the reclassification. The Mentor Foundation is avowedly an organisation that pursues a Prevention agenda; as part of the justification for this stance, the Mentor Foundation cites sources including the UN, stating "Drugs destroy lives and communities, undermine sustainable human development and generate crime. " No analysis is included to consider how international prohibition contributes to drug-related crime and harm.

Having looked at the content of the drug-specific information on the website, there is a great deal of inaccurate, value laden and sensationalist information which reinforces myths and misconceptions. Much of this is US-based and not relevant to the UK drug scene.

Quite why the Mentor Foundation should have been chosen to prepare literature for the reclassification is unclear. One of its trustees, the pro-hunting Tory Peer lord Mancroft, has come out against the use of criminal justice sanctions for cannabis use, saying "The use by successive governments of the criminal justice system in dealing with cannabis - "a health and social problem" - had produced "no results" and had led to "a massive increase in drug use." [BBC:18.10.2000]

To compound the above problems and confusion, the Observer [19.1.04] reports that, due to funding problems, a large number of Drugs Advisor posts are to be cut in April. These posts, who help schools to develop policy and practice in schools-based drugs education, support and responding to incidents, will come to an end as core funding is removed. While some LEAs will continue to fund the posts, others say they cannot afford to. WIth the piloting and role-out of Blueprint in the pipeline, this seems like a short-sited response.

In short, with the reclassification less than ten days away, we have an inconsistent and unworkable policy on cannabis which increases risk, increases confusion and utterly fails to increase the credibility of the drug laws. One person is responsible for this: Mr. Blunkett. The reclassification was a simple process and it is astonishing that he has been allowed to meddle with it with such disastrous results.

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