Nearly 50 years ago, a Government commissioned report concluded that the time had come to draw a distinction between the use of cannabis and the use of some other illegal substances. It also concluded that possessing small amounts of the drug and being a dealer were two very different things and should therefore be treated very differently under the law. Today, we are no closer to properly implementing either of these two very sensible suggestions; if anything, we seem to be moving in the wrong direction.
Despite the legal status of drugs being a reserved issue, the existence of a separate Scottish legal system, along with the Scottish Parliament’s powers over health and policing, led many to believe there may have been hope for a different approach in Scotland. There is nothing to stop the Scottish Government simply instructing the Police to not spend any money pestering weed smokers nor is there any reason we shouldn’t be investing in more holistic approaches to treatment.
Drugs, as a political issue, seem to have completely fallen off the radar in Scotland. I can understand why the SNP leadership haven’t been beckoning the nation aboard their free Scotland/the weed bus at this precise moment. But shouldn’t those of us who favour independence be asking what kind of drug policy we want Scotland to have? After 50 years of reefer madness from Westminster, isn’t it time for Scotland to have a proper debate about our cannabis laws?
Successive Westminster Governments have made a total arse of drugs policy, wasting resources on initiatives like reclassifying cannabis to a Class C drug, then back to Class B, engineering a frenzy around mephedrone which had the effect of a government/media sponsored sales pitch and the total purging of those impudent scientists from the drugs debate.
In theory, possession of cannabis carries a 5 year jail term. The actual result of so-called prohibition is that around 1 in 10 of us use cannabis – among young people that’s more like 1 in 3 or 4. The media seem obsessed with the idea we’re all hooked on super strong skunk when in reality, the cost of weed has doubled in the last decade. Most simply couldn’t afford to be as baked as the fearmongers make out. Just yesterday there was a “story “on the BBC, featuring some dude claiming kids were now smoking 60 joints a day. I can’t say I know many teenagers with the hundreds of pounds of weekly disposable income required to keep up such a habit – especially if they’re smoking some posh super skunk. This all smells a bit like a middle-class moral panic; parents insisting that it’s definitely worse than when they did it. Maybe some of them should just not give their teenagers £500 pocket money and stop pretend it’s a national epidemic.
Smoking cannabis is clearly bad for the health of users, that’s not really up for discussion. But even if we assume that weans are smoking 60 joints a day or that cannabis is a gateway drug or that it could have seriously negative effects on the mental health of some users, the current policy isn‘t working. Cannabis use isn’t going away and for the first time, it’s now estimated we produce more of the drug than we consume (and we consume a lot, comparatively speaking). This means that Scotland is now a net exporter of cannabis. What we have is a massive, entirely unregulated market in which the producers engage in all kinds of dodgy activities and the consumers have no rights, no idea what they are really being sold or what effect it might have on them. This isn’t what “prohibition” was supposed to look like.
The Police have no desire to waste their increasingly scarce resources throwing hundreds of thousands of people in jail nor would the courts have the time to put everyone on trial who happened to have once smoked a joint. So what we have is a selectively enforced policy which means police can use drug laws against people they don’t really like and ignore everyone else. Increasingly target-driven policing has also left the force complaining of wasting too much time on teenagers with twenty bags who aren’t going to put up much of a fight and spending no time at all tackling the massive supply chain because doing the latter is expensive and sometimes dangerous work. There is clearly no stomach amongst our police or our politicians for a massive investment in a continuation of the doomed “war on drugs.” The UK’s policy has failed to prevent cannabis use, mitigate the ill effects of the production/distribution process or protect cannabis users. Whoever is in charge in Westminster, with austerity politics aplenty, the current long held policy of just say no (and do nothing) will almost definitely continue.
The cannabis debate didn’t really begin too well in the Scottish Parliament either to be fair. It’s easy to think of our now mature democracy and forget that, in the beginning, the Parliament was a bit of a joke. Back in the year 2000, the earth shattering news that some Labour MSP said she had smoked a joint twenty years was too much. My erstwhile local MSP, rambunctious Tory Phil Gallie leapt in and called for her to resign from the Justice Committee. However, when responding the first ever survey about attitudes to cannabis and cannabis use among MSPs, Mr Gallie, alongside radicals like Annabel Goldie, confessed to being in favour of legalisation for medical purposes. A subsequent survey, held shortly before the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election, prompted journalist Tom Gordon, who often writes on the subject, to bust out an “SNP are a bunch of tokers” piece for the Times.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the funniest part of these surveys is definitely finding out whether your MSP is a total stoner. In 2000, a certain Nicola Sturgeon gave the “no comment” response which is always taken to mean she almost definitely smokes a blunt before First Minister’s Questions. By 2007, this had moved to the “I did it but I didn’t like it” entirely missing the “I smoked it but I didn’t inhale” stage. I wonder if another 7 years on, in 2014 we might finally get to hear from politicians who have actually derived enjoyment from something at least 300,000 Scots do to relax. I never know whether it’s worse to think politicians are lying about how little they enjoyed a smoke or knowing they are EXACTLY the kind of people who would embarrass you at a party by throwing a massive whitey and have to be taken home before most people have even turned up.
Politicians are still total lightweights when it comes to drug policy as well. But what better ideas are out there? In the past, we only really had the Dutch model and it wasn’t very good. Most people didn’t really want every town and city in Scotland to have a massive pot district with scabby dugs and their even scabbier owners lounging about blowing smoke on everyone else. There has recently been much focus on the so-called “decriminalisation” in Portugal, even though it is nothing of the sort. In an attempt to tackle the AIDS epidemic, the Portuguese Government implemented a strategy based on harm reduction and made personal use of drugs an administrative issue, judged in a discretionary manner and not something for the courts. So smoking a joint might get you a 50 Euro fine, whereas if you shoot up before attempting to teach kids, you’ll lose your job – you can be banned from going to clubs or even hanging about with certain people in our certain places. Cannabis is not “legal” in Portugal or in Holland and the supply of weed is not regulated either. I don’t personally believe either model is therefore that worthwhile but they are both miles better than what we currently have. Use of cannabis is declining in both countries and despite the prediction of apocalypse from the prohibitionists, it’s clearly been a step in the right direction.
I’ve always believed that there is no case for cannabis remaining criminalised, at all. We are now as aware of the effects of the drug as is really necessary to begin to properly regulate and test it and to develop safer strains as well as safer methods of consumption. More research is definitely a priority but this can work side by side with legalisation and licensed sale. This is much safer than allowing the current criminal production and distribution chain to remain in the interim period. The money that once lined drug dealer’s pockets could instead be spent minimising the harm drugs do, both on an individual and societal level. I’d suggest cannabis does significantly less harm that the politicians’ favourites like alcohol or tobacco or the drugs the media not-so-secretly love like cocaine. And so would science.
Even if you don’t favour legalisation – and why wouldn’t you – it’s time to ask if we are really prepared to put up with another 50 years of a doomed policy like prohibition when there are so many possible alternatives. There is no interest in any change coming from Westminster. There’s not much indication the SNP would automatically be any better but even doing basic things like setting up a genuinely independent scientific body to provide guidance on drugs policy would be better than what we have right now. It’s inconceivable that such a body would conclude that a 5 year prison sentence was ever an appropriate punishment for being in possession of a bit of weed for personal use.
Politicians are too shit scared to talk about drugs, even weed and that‘s just not good enough. There is always an excuse not to; an election just round the corner or a tabloid editor to be kept on side, it’s divisive, it’s not a doorstep issue, old ladies won’t like it. I know the referendum is approaching and I’m not expecting to see Dennis Canavan’s Cannabis Caravan driving around the streets of Scotland but it would be nice if we didn’t have total silence from our politicians either.
We should be talking about the possibility of a drugs strategy based on evidence and public health rather than fear and spin. If we want 2014 to be the “year of Yes” we might want to stop repeating “just say No” and start saying “Yes we cannabis.”
Find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AThousandFlowers
Follow us on Twitter @unsavourycabal