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"Whatever must happen ultimately should happen immediately."
Henry A Kissinger
"The long-term consumption of cannabis in moderate doses has no harmful effects."
1968 UK Royal Commission, The Wootton Report
"Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves."
Ronald Reagan

A Brief History of Cannabis Prohibition - Part 4

By Drew Whitworth

The Modern Day
Cannabis use had never actually gone away, so calling the late 1960s a "revival" is misleading. Yet it is true that at this time, particularly thanks to the flowering (pun intended) of the UK-US "hippy" culture, use of the drug achieved a high profile once again thanks to high-profile busts such as those of the Rolling Stones and George Harrison. NORML (the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) was created in the US in 1970 and exists to this day (click here for their web site). In 1975, Alaska legalised the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use (a law revoked in 1990), and the following year, the most famous decriminalisation occurred, that of the Netherlands (until 1997, the only whole country in the world to take such a stance - since then, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy have officially adopted a much more tolerant attitude to the drug). (Ironically, also in 1976 DuPont called for the decriminalisation of cannabis as well). Even President Carter made conciliatory noises.

However, this brief wave of tolerance came to an end with the election of right-wing governments in both the US and UK at the turn of the 1980s. Neither Reagan nor Thatcher had a liberal bone in their body, and Reagan's much-vaunted "War on Drugs" (by which, to quote Robert Anton Wilson, is meant the "War on Certain Drugs") utterly reversed it. In 1983 the Reagan/Bush administration ordered American Universities to destroy all 1966-76 research work on cannabis. This in the face of continuing scientific and medical evidence against any "harmful" consequences from cannabis use, and in favour of its medicinal use.

In 1987 the US Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy said: "Cannabis can be used on an episodic but continual basis without evidence of social or psychic dysfunction.... The chief opposition to the drug rests on a moral and political, and not toxicological, foundation." Yet in 1989 Bush (by now President) banned shops even from selling smoking apparatus. The consequence of all this was to drive the price of cannabis as high as that of gold, ounce for ounce - and therefore make the growth and trafficking of the drug an incredibly attractive prospect for global organised crime. Nice one, George.

The Reagan/Bush era ended with Clinton's election in 1992 - a year which saw 340,000 arrests for cannabis possession in the US. Amongst them was the Oklahoman man Jim Montgomery, a paraplegic who smoked cannabis to relieve muscle spasm. He was busted for two ounces of marijuana and sentenced to life plus 16 years. The presidency of Bill Clinton, a man who claimed he smoked but did not inhale, led to no immediate change: by 1995 his administration had busted 1,450,751 people for cannabis, 86% being for possession only. (That's about 1 out of every 170 US citizens, man, woman and child, in three years.)

To be "fair", the US wasn't the only country to be so draconian - in 1996, the Maldives sentenced a Swiss man to life imprisonment for having three seeds at the bottom of his luggage (yes - just three seeds, which aren't even able to get you high), though he was released in 1997 after international pressure. Many other countries, however, had started to preach greater tolerance, and the medical/scientific evidence continued to back them.

But despite this evidence, not to mention the more pragmatic issue of continuing, widespread use by "ordinary" people, prohibition remained. The issue was too political. In Britain, the two main political parties vied with each other to display the most aggressive stance towards anything seen as a "law and order" issue. While still in opposition, a Labour MP, George Howarth, said in 1996 that his party did not want a Royal Commission because it might conclude that cannabis should be legalised - which a Labour Government would not do anyway. A fine example there of open and democratic government-in-waiting.

Some of their rivals were more open-minded, with the Scottish Nationalists voting to allow cultivation for personal use and research into medical uses of cannabis, stating that "...relatively few adverse clinical effects from the chronic use of marijuana have been documented in humans. However, the criminalisation of marijuana use may itself be a health hazard, since it may expose the users to violence and criminal activity."

Through this, the US continued to display its fine tradition of democratic justice and tolerance by, for instance, sentencing a Texan medical user to 93 years for cultivating one plant. (George W Bush was governor at the time.) But by 1997 some Swiss cantons had legalised the possession of small amounts, and a UK newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, openly began a campaign for decriminalisation. Not long after, our friend, the Labour Home Office spokesman George Howarth, said on Radio 4 News that cannabis causes harm and that Labour will never have dialogue on legalisation. His only "solution" was to stamp it out. How this was intended to be done after seventy years of outright prohibition had led to an increase in use, only George knows.

Only a brief time later, however, there is a definite and welcome change in this attitude, at least in Europe. Ann Widdecombe's speech to the Conservative Party conference in 2000 was the time, I think, when the tone of the debate really shifted. Now, in 2001, Home Secretary David Blunkett has stated that cannabis should be reclassified from a class B to a class C drug, a move which would (while still technically outlawing it) make prosecution for simple possession almost impossible.

Whether this move will herald full legalisation or decriminalisation, as is taking place now in several European countries almost simultaneously, it is difficult to tell. But it is certainly the case that when the issue now appears in the British media, the tone is largely pro-cannabis - or at least pro-choice (which is a better stance anyway). In fact, some commentators now go so far as to call cannabis smoking boring, as something without the slightest hint of radicalism or danger. Even a Prince of the Realm has now been reported as enjoying a smoke! (13th January 2002 - Britain's Prince Harry has been exposed as a toker. Good for him.)