26 March 2007

The Independent - shamefully wrong on cannabis

The Independent is ill-informed, publicity hungry or utterly craven. Nothing else can explain their decision to abandon their ten-year campaign to legalise cannabis.

But, to be fair, their original rationale for legalisation was not especially well-thought out, so their retraction was never likely to be.

The Independent's old and new arguments seem to run as follows: ten years ago cannabis was not as dangerous as everyone thought, and so it was stupid that it was illegal. Now it's become more dangerous so it should be illegal.

Let's ignore, for now, the shaky evidence base that props up the claims that cannabis is ten, twenty, thirty times stronger than it was a decade, two decades or three decades ago. These arguments are not evidence based, and the relative strengths of available strains of cannabis have historically varied massively.

Let's also, for now, side-step the contested evidence that says THC 'causes' severe mental illness and, according to images offered up by the Indie, physical damage to the brain.

Even the statistics offered by the Independent on the number of young people "entering treatment" for cannabis are misleading. Yes, a significant proportion of young people "entering treatment" do so for cannabis. But let's not forget that more than a third of these young people are refered in to treatment via Youth Offending Teams. And that any young person receiving a "Final Warning" is referred to a Youth Offending Team. So thousands of children are receiving final warnings for cannabis use - thanks to an iniquitous policing system that means that they cannot receive "cannabis warnings" unlike adults. In turn they are refered to YOTs and then, on to drugs agencies so their cannabis use can be properly addressed. Each of these admissions is dutifully recorded as entering "treatment" for the purpose of the NDTMS, creating an illusion that thousands of young people are developing cannabis problems.

But even this isn't the worst aspect of the Independent's volte face.

Instead, let's look at the gaping philosophical flaw at the heart of the Indie's argument. The purport to be worried about the risks of 'new' 'strong' strains of cannabis. And these new, strong strains emerged within a period of prohibition. Cannabis they say, got stronger and more dangerous under prohibition. So what do they propose to deal with this? A continuation of prohibition.

As with alcohol in America during prohibition, so cannabis has become more hazardrous under prohibition, lacking as it does, any proper regulatory or scrutiny framework. We have ended up with contaminated resins, adulterated herbal cannabis; we have growing arenas which represent fire hazards, and we have cannabis of variable strengths which can be unpredictable.

Thanks to enforcement, relatively good quality, balanced compounds such as quality resins have been supplanted by skunk and soapbar.

And this is the stupidity of the Independent's new position. They should have continued to argue for legalisation. And probably argued more vociferously than ever before. Not because cannabis is a 'safe drug' which it patently is not. But because the best way to manage the hazards to bring it within a licensed and regulated framework. Concerned about the proliferation of super strength skunk? Then introduce a taxation system structured around potency, as we do with alcohol. Low strength products could be taxed at a lower rate, and higher strength products taxed at a punitively high rate. Suppliers would, as with alcohol sales, have to be trained and licensed. Products would need to be sampled, quality and strength assessed and properly distributed.

But the Independent cannot see this. They have abandoned their campaign. Not, to be honest that they had done anything with it in the past five years. In doing so, they have substantially boosted the cause of prohibitionists everywhere -as the comments of Antonia da Costa of the UNODC make all too clear.

Never has the phrase "yellow journalism" been so aposite. The Independent has really shown its true colours.

KFx March 2007

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