Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Cannabis: it’s time to stop the lies and start a rational debate

It doesn't require a Leap of faith to support the growing calls for a radical rethink of policy on drugs and in particular on the decriminalisation of cannabis.



Leap doesn't base its case on faith but on solid experience, hard facts and proven science.

Leap — Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — is a non-profit educational organisation in the US, its membership drawn from former and serving police officers and other law enforcement agents as well as lawyers, including a number of retired judges.

Founded seven years ago by five retired drugs officers, it now claims 10,000 members in a total of 38 states.

It runs a bureau supplying speakers to advocate the decriminalisation of drugs at conferences, rotary clubs, community groups, high school and college debates and so forth. Its director, Jack Cole, served 26 years in the New Jersey state police, including 14 in the narcotics bureau.

These are not left-over hippies or natural libertarians but former frontline combatants in the war on drugs who have learnt that the war is unwinnable and doing more harm than good.

Leap defines its mission: “To reduce the multitude of harms resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the rates of death, disease, crime and addiction by ultimately ending drug prohibition.”

The emergence of Leap has been a factor in shifting the axis of argument over drugs policy in the US.

Facilities licensed to supply cannabis for medical reasons are increasingly and openly broadening their customer base to encompass an ever-widening range of ailments.

Additional evidence of changing attitudes came last month when the Denver Westword — a weekly with a 100,000-plus circulation — advertised for a critic to write a column, ‘Mile Highs and Lows’, checking out Colorado's hundreds of legalised cannabis dispensaries.

“The reviewer will be expected to rate the service, and ambience in the outlets, and help readers negotiate the often bewildering variety of marijuana products on sale,” explained editor Joe Tone.

Things to do in Denver if you're dead lucky: get the job as pub-spy for pot-heads.

Meanwhile, evidence on this side of the Atlantic mounts — if evidence for a proposition which has already been conclusively proven can be said to mount — of the deadly dangers of alcohol, particularly to young people, compared to the relative safety of cannabis.

Last month Professor Chris Hawkey, president of the British Society of Gastroenterology, introduced new research suggesting that the next decade will see 90,000 people dying prematurely in Britain as a result of |alcohol.

There seem to be no comparable specific figures for Ireland north or south, but we can reasonably assume a similar situation.

He added: “A third of patients on (gastroenterology) wards are alcoholics — and these days many are in their 20s and 30s.”

In contrast, the number of deaths attributed to marijuana in these islands last year was nil. Same as the year before. Same as this year will turn out.

A society seriously trying to get to grips with its drugs problem, especially as it affects the young, would be trumpeting this distinction between a safe and a killer drug.

Instead, day in and day out, teenagers and others are urged to believe that marijuana poses a grave danger, while alcohol, used ‘responsibly’, will make life fuller and more enjoyable.

People are being lied to. It is my experience that many here, including elected representatives, who publicly assert implacable opposition to the decriminalisation of marijuana, will concede in private that the ban makes no sense.

But, they go on to say that to call openly for decriminalisation is to ‘send the wrong message’. But it's the fact that marijuana is banned which sends the wrong message.

When young people realise, as they will, that they are being lied to about marijuana, they are likely to believe that they are being misled about heroin, too. ‘Irresponsibility’ scarcely covers it.

There are powerful forces with vested interests in maintaining skewed attitudes to drugs, most obviously the alcohol industry. If a substance cheaper, less harmful and more enjoyable than alcohol were easily available, the profits of the booze business would be at risk.

In Northern Ireland, in this specific matter, paramilitary organisations, too, have a compelling interest in stifling debate. For as long as communities can be spooked into believing that puffing a joint will lead to personal |catastrophe, for so long will hysteria about drugs persist and punishment shooters-and-beaters have a role.

Would the Derry-based outfit styling itself Republican Action Against Drugs be able to get away with dragging a man from his distraught family at Bluebellhill Gardens and maiming him with bullets in the public street if there was a rational debate under way about how to assess and to deal with the problem of drugs abuse?

The possibility of rational debate was hardly enhanced by the ignorant belligerence of Home Secretary Alan Johnston last week in sacking Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, not for expressing an opinion contrary to the Government's but for voicing facts which the Government — and the main opposition parties — would rather not acknowledge.

Neither the Home Secretary nor anyone who has supported the sacking has challenged the accuracy of the professor's statistics or the logic of the case which he has argued from the statistics. Who among our local politicians will be first to show respect for the people and speak the truth?

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