28 Oct Does Decriminalisation Make Sense?

Cannabis is regularly used by at least 2 million people according to the government (and that’s almost certainly a gross underestimate), to put it in context (church of England)

The latest local church attendance figures from the Church of England for 2010 show that approaching 1.7 million people continue to attend Church of England services each month, and around 1.1 million attend one of the Church of England’s 16,000 churches as part of a typical week.

So there are many more cannabis users than regular church goers.

I only mention this comparison with church attendance to underline how common cannabis use is in today’s society, it really is at such a level as to be considered “normalised” by most standards, yet it remains something that is illegal, supposedly the focus of a policy designed to bring about the eradication of the pass-time, It should be obvious by now that cannabis use is not going to be eradicated, whatever your view of it cannabis is here to stay as they say, get used to it.

Believe it or not cannabis is supposed to be prohibited. Prohibition is madness, it’s a policy that keeps this huge culture underground and in the arms of a massive uncontrolled criminal industry.It tries to protect people by criminalising them and calls itself “drug control” by making any form of control impossible.

The Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) drugs inquiry is over now as far as we can tell. I don’t hold out much hope that it will bring any significant change, partly because it was chaired by Keith Vaz who is an MP very unlikely to rock any boats but also because the government has made it abundantly clear it has no intention of making any changes to the prohibition law, no matter how persuasive the argument, no matter what the evidence.

It’s not just this government, this blind faith in prohibition extends to both main parties, but it’s worth remembering that is now upheld by David Cameron who previously stated – before he came to power – that he wanted to see change. The degree people like David Cameron and the whole government is committed to prohibition has to be suspect, it’s hard to think of any policy in any other area that would have been allowed to coast along in the way drug policy has with no hint of success and with no attempt to measure its impact. It’s as if someone is making a lot of money from the whole sorry mess, it’s hard indeed to think of any other explanation beyond corruption of some form.

The best we can hope for from the HASC is consideration of the idea of decriminalisation, perhaps along the lines of the Portugal regime which we can expect to be rejected. So would that be a good thing? Should we welcome in effect a blind eye being turned to small scale drug use, what is often called “taking a softer line”?

Decrim is not legalisation, it would still allow some kind of non-criminal sanction against cannabis consumers, but it would at least be non-criminal. Also, it does nothing to change the nature of the supply side which would still be uncontrolled, unregulated and a source of funds for organised criminals and terrorists.

Let’s be clear about this: If it were not for the horror that is prohibition a policy like decriminalisation would be objectionable madness. The only thing decrim has going for it is it’s not as bad as full on prohibition; people who do have problems with their drug use are less inhibited from coming forward for help and less people will have their lives ruined by a criminal record.

So should we welcome a “softer” line on drugs? I don’t like that sort of question because I would want to answer “no” to it, but I would want to answer “no” because I support real drug law reform and want to see an end to prohibition, not some half-way house of tinkering with the present regime in the hope of making it less bad.

What I want to see is a proper regime of control for the commercial supply of drugs used for enjoyment*, especially cannabis. It’s important to realise the commercial supply of drugs exists whether or not it’s legal, and at the moment represents a huge mutli billion pound endeavour reaching into every section of society.

The one thing prohibition is not is “drug control”. Prohibition doesn’t even try to control drugs because that can only be done by controlling the trade. Instead prohibition tries to control people – each and every one of us – which is why it doesn’t work. Decrim would not be drug control either, nothing would change in that respect.

Controlling drugs means properly enforced laws over the supply side to ensure the product is clean, of known strength and potency and not supplied by unsuitable people, along with other measures to protect the vulnerable such as age limits for sales. This isn’t a “softer” line, it would be a very real form of drug control. It would be a more practical regime than we have now because it would be in the interests of the consumers, it would have their support and it wouldn’t treat the people it was designed to help as criminals.

But of course I do support anything that would make the situation less bad, it makes no sense to carry on arresting people, ruining lives, tearing families apart and all the other things prohibition does. Decriminalising small scale use makes sense – or as much sense as it’s possible to have under the current mad regime. It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, only a little bit better but better none the less.

This is why I support CLEAR in its call for cannabis law rerom even though I don’t use it myself. The forthcoming by-election in Corby is an opportunity to try to put the whole sorry mess that is prohibition onto the political agenda. For sure, none of the mainstream parties wants to talk about it.


* A footnote: I wrote above “drugs used for enjoyment”, someone is bound to ask about medical use of cannabis. My personal take on this is yes of course, medical use is something that should never be denied, even if the “medical use” simply makes an illness easier to deal with. In my opinion to do so is tantamount to torture. Fact is though, the free use of cannabis for medical reasons will never be possible while so-called “recreational” use is prohibited. If some form of recreational use becomes legal, then medical use becomes available by default – as do all the non-drug uses of hemp etc. So the way I see it is that the focus of the law reform effort should be on recreational use.