Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Law's gone to pot, time for cannabis decriminalisation

Many have called for cannabis to be decriminalised
Many have called for cannabis to be decriminalised

Every time we hear of somebody charged with possession of marijuana we should rage against the stupidity of the criminalisation of a relatively harmless drug while addictive killer substances like alcohol are legally available to 18-year-olds and easy for even younger people to obtain.

Americans push steadily forward towards common sense. Here, the refusal of authorities to acknowledge the truth seems invincible.

Supermarkets display alcoholic concoctions, often at knock-down prices. Football, rugby and GAA authorities compete for sponsorship by alcohol companies arguing, ludicrously, that a ban on sponsorship would damage sport and thereby damage the health, of young people in particular.

Drink more booze for better health. Stay slim with deep-fried Mars bars. Prevent heart disease, up your cholesterol intake.

Advertisers tell us to "Drink responsibly." Aye, right. The purpose of drink ads is to sell more drink. If this weren't the case they wouldn't buy airtime.

The country is awash with alcohol, while you can acquire a criminal record for carrying a quarter ounce of cannabis in your pocket.

Disinformation is dished out day and daily. News reports regularly announce that cannabis plants to this or that value have been seized and the miscreant growers arrested. Police and politicians issue statements of satisfaction and renew appeals to the public to contact Crimestoppers if they hear of a citizen cultivating the weed.

In a rational society anybody phoning the police to report a marijuana "offence" should be charged with wasting police time.

It's not just the police, politicians and busybodies with nothing better to do. A while ago I heard a GP at a meeting in a local estate telling that he had treated "many" patients who had been "turned on" (his phrase) to heroin or cocaine by smoking a single joint.

Of the categories of anti-cannabis campaigners, the police are probably least culpable. Their job is to enforce the law, and UK law classifies cannabis as "class B".

In 2001 cannabis was transferred from class B to class C, ruling out arrest for possession. The change came following advice from the Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and in light of surveys suggesting that British adults supported decriminalisation by 49% to 36%, with 15% undecided.

In 2005 the issue was referred back to the ACMD, which declared that there was no basis in medicine or the administration of justice for reverting to class B status. Gordon Brown ignored the advice. The Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, Professor David Nutt, was sacked for saying in public that this decision flew in the face of the facts.

But across the Atlantic it seems no longer a matter of whether cannabis will be decriminalised but of when. Last week the New York Times ran a series of articles debunking baseless scare stories and endorsing decriminalisation.

Last weekend, too, Denver in Colorado saw the first-ever "pot pavilion" at a county fair. Solid citizens formed queues. In 2012 Colorado and Washington had voted to make cannabis available for recreational purposes. Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC will vote later this year.

Thirty-five of the 50 states already allow sale of cannabis for medicinal purposes. The latest polls suggest that a majority of adult Americans back decriminalisation.

The statistics reflect the fact that not only is there no medical case for the ban, the social consequence have been disastrous.

There are 500,000 Americans in prison for possession of cannabis. Half are black, although black people make up only 13% of the population and are no more likely than white people to use drugs.

We have an alcohol epidemic on our hands. A survey involving 7,610 youngsters from 11 to 16 revealed that 46% had taken alcohol: 18% had been given their last drink by a parent.

Many of these parents would be disturbed to discover that their offspring has smoked a few joints rather than overdosed on alcohol on a night out. Ever hear of a young person doing a selfie on an open-air sex act while high on cannabis?

There are dangers with cannabis. The younger you are – our brains not being fully formed until late teens or early 20s – the higher the risk. Same with any mind-altering substance, with alcohol, again, posing significantly greater risk than cannabis. And any activity which involves sucking smoke into your lungs can't be doing you good.

Psychological addiction can be real, same as the ingestion of anything which seems to soothe the mind – stuff that makes you fat, stuff that makes you thin, stuff that makes you feel confident.

But allowing the free promotion of alcohol while demonising cannabis is stupid, irrational and dangerous – particularly to the young.

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