11/07/2002 The Guardian
ARTICLE FOR THE GUARDIAN
BY THE RT HON PETER LILLEY MP ? 11TH JULY 2002
Before announcing his new policy on cannabis, David Blunkett should have remembered the old Yorkshire proverb:? “Even though a horse has four legs it cannot go in two directions at once.??? Still less can Home Secretaries move drug policy in a more liberal and a more penal direction simultaneously.??? Not surprisingly in trying to do so, he fell flat on his face and, far more serious, may have given us the worst of all worlds.
He wants to reduce penalties on cannabis use and possession while increasing penalties for its sale.?? This will do nothing to discourage demand but continue to drive cannabis users into the arms of illegal gangs who also push heroin and cocaine.
There are two coherent approaches to cannabis.?? One is the Swedish policy of rigorous prohibition.?? It has some success but it involves mandatory punishment or treatment of users and operates in a society which is highly restrictive even of alcohol.?? The reaction when Ann Widdecombe proposed rather less draconian measures suggests that approach would not be accepted in this country.
On the other hand there is the Dutch approach which separates the supply of cannabis from that of hard drugs by allowing legal but regulated outlets for cannabis.?? The result has been a lower level of cannabis use than in the UK and far fewer people migrating onto hard drugs.??? So heroin addicts in Holland are an ageing group with few new recruits.
Sadly Blunkett has opted for neither approach.?? Above all he has done nothing to separate the supply of cannabis from the people who push hard drugs.?? If anything, increasing the penalty on selling cannabis to a maximum of 14 years will mean that only the more hardened criminals ? precisely those who handle hard drugs ? will remain in the market.?? When I asked him in Parliament how he proposed to stop driving cannabis users into the arms of hard drug pushers he simply ignored the question.
The problem seems to be that he believed he could ? as he put it ? wrong foot both the libertarians (by re-classifying) and the authoritarians (by announcing increased penalties).?? He hoped that by a little obfuscation he could play the cannabis issue into the long grass ? so to speak.?? But drugs policy is far too serious an issue to play political games.?? We need clarity not confusion.
Sadly he seems to have ignored the lessons of Brixton.??? Merely relaxing enforcement of the law on cannabis use has not worked.?? It has made the dealers bolder, made it easier for them to push hard drugs.
The starting point for reform must be that the present policy does not work.?? It has proved unenforceable.?? Over forty per cent of young people have defied the law and over a million people used cannabis last month despite fairly severe penalties.?? The number of people arrested for cannabis offences has quadrupled to nearly 100,000 a year, yet the police and courts enforce the law with diminishing enthusiasm.
It is unenforceable above all because it is indefensible in a society which allows the sale of alcohol and tobacco.
But the attempt to enforce it results in a huge diversion of resources away from tackling hard drugs;? it undermines respect for the law;? it creates friction between police and ethnic minorities;? it enriches the illegal gangs who are given a monopoly of supply;? and above all it drives soft drugs users into the arms of hard drugs pushers.
To tackle those problems requires clear thinking, not deliberate obfuscation.?? Sadly, Blunkett?s attempt to have it both ways has just sown confusion.
We are told it is less wrong than it used to be to buy cannabis but more wrong to sell it.?? Users are told they will no longer be arrested for cannabis possession ? but they may be prosecuted.?? Police are told they can no longer arrest but then told yes they can if use threatens public order.?? Dealers will hope they can avoid prosecution just for possession if they are not actually caught in the act of selling.??
When I started looking at this issue, I imagined that there might be some half-way house:? reducing penalties or relaxing enforcement.?? But on any rational analysis it was clear that they would not resolve the problems created by the present laws.?? David Blunkett must be aware of that too.
As long as cannabis use, sale and cultivation are criminal offences ? diminishing penalties on use or rarely enforcing them will not restore respect for the law, will not release resources to tackle hard drugs, will not remove cannabis from enriching gangsterdom and above all will not separate cannabis users from the sources of hard drugs.
The only solution is to licence some legal outlets for the sale of cannabis.
To be fair reclassification may bring two modest benefits.?? It will make it clear that there is a marked distinction between cannabis and hard drugs.
All too often the ?war on drugs? wilfully confused hard and soft drugs.?? The result was that young people who found cannabis did not have the fearful consequences they had been led to believe were more likely to dismiss warnings against hard drugs.?? More important, now cannabis is no longer an arrestable offence there should be no need to carry out all the 300,000 stop and searches for drugs.?? Only 12 per cent of these ever found drugs but they caused immense friction between police, the young and ethnic minorities in particular.]
No-one pretends that it will be easy to move to a sensible policy on drugs.?? It will require courage as well as cunning.?? I always thought David Blunkett possessed both.?? If ever a government was in a position to take bold action surely it is this one.?? It has an overwhelming Parliamentary majority.?? Most of its MPs do in their hearts want to move towards legalisation of cannabis.??? Yet it is strangely reluctant to do what it knows is right if the focus groups and tabloids are not on their side.
When John Major was struggling to survive with a majority of one he was derided as being ?in office, not in power?.?? Tony Blair has power but, lacking any purpose, seems strangely reluctant to use it to do what is right.