The lower chamber of Uruguay’s Congress has recently passed a Bill which, if passed by the Senate, will make the South American country the first in the world to create a legal, national market for cannabis plants. Under the terms of the Bill, consumers would be allowed to either grow up to six plants at home or purchase up to 40 grams of cannabis per month. The produce would be dispensed by licensed chemists for medicinal or recreational use. Buyers must be aged eighteen or over and registered; thus the drug would not be available to foreign visitors.
The International Narcotics Control Board, a branch of the UN, has already expressed concern over the proposal, maintaining that such a law would be in ‘complete contravention’ of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. Nevertheless, the Bill reflects a broader sea-change in attitudes towards drug policy, particularly that of cannabis, which millions of people worldwide smoke or ingest on a regular basis. Out of the South American countries, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela have already decriminalised the drug. Across the continent, policymakers are looking for alternatives to the long-running War on Drugs, which has claimed or blighted so many lives, cost so much money and which, by any standards, has been an abject failure. Legalisation, they argue, will disempower the traffickers and the gangsters whilst acknowledging that criminalising ordinary users serves no purpose. “Uruguay’s bold move does more than follow in the footsteps of Colorado or Washington,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It provides a model for legally regulating marijuana that other countries, and US states, will want to consider.”
In fact, the consideration stage is already upon us and I have no doubt that other countries and states will pass similar legislation themselves in the near future. The case for liberalisation is a compelling one: possession of cannabis (and all other drugs) has been decriminalised in Portugal since 2001. In the ten years since this change, the country has seen the rates for both HIV infection and drug-related deaths halve, as well as a doubling of entrants into state-funded rehabilitation. Here in the UK, many people are wondering whether the British government will ever consider such a move. Some of you may recall a brief moment in time, back in January 2004, when cannabis was downgraded to a Class C drug. However, in 2008 the government (under Gordon Brown) decided to reclassify it as a Class B drug, contrary to the recommendations of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs. Currently, possession of the drug in Britain carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, although those caught with small amounts usually suffer nothing more than confiscation and a warning. Nevertheless, its illegal status is a source of much frustration among users, who are forced to rely upon criminal gangs for their supply. Cannabis is widely available if you have the right connections, but I do not foresee any British government decriminalising it any time soon, for a number of reasons.
The popular press is, for the most part, vociferously opposed to decriminalisation, to the extent that they regularly peddle lies and half-truths about ‘reefer madness’ and the ‘cannabis timebomb’ to brainwash their readers into agreeing with them. Occasionally, they like to publicise the heart-wrenching story of some woman’s idiot son who went insane and killed himself because he smoked a joint once. “His life was ruined!” she sobs, “and that’s why drugs are baaaaaad!” For all we know, the silly boy could have been sniffing glue and licking toads, but hey, why let the truth get in the way of a good story? The term ‘gateway drug’ is regularly bandied about as well, but there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that smoking marijuana drives people into the arms of heroin and cocaine dealers. The truth of the matter is, the cockroaches who write for Tory rags like The Sun and The Daily Mail hate cannabis because they associate it with the radical anti-establishment fringe – the sorts of folks who never purchase their newspapers. In fact, cannabis smokers vary greatly in character and political leaning. Nevertheless, the image of the work-shy hippy, with his bong, his free love and his vexatious tendency not to swallow the horse shit that is frequently printed in the tabloids, persists.
Almost all of the cannabis sold in Britain is the ‘skunk’ variety. This is a heavily-adulterated, cross-pollinated, foul-smelling mutant strain which is considerably stronger, more addictive, causes paranoia, insomnia and withdrawal symptoms. It’s very different from the sweet-smelling herb or resin you find on the Continent. Small wonder that so many people are anti-cannabis, for they do not make the distinction between this and the milder, more natural, varieties. Skunk, being stronger, is also more expensive and therefore more profitable for the gangs who grow it. Incidentally, most of it is grown in residential properties by Vietnamese (though there are other nationalities involved too), usually in the attic, where the plants are hydroponically cultivated underneath the glare of ultraviolet lamps. These lights require a good deal of electricity, which the gangs often obtain by rigging their houses up to a nearby street-lamp. You have to hand it to these drug dealers – they’re resourceful buggers. Skunk is, in my opinion, a travesty of the beloved herb; if I had my way, I would legalise regular marijuana and regulate it, in the interests of public safety, so that no unscrupulous growers contaminate it. It is because of the drug’s outlawed status that skunk exists at all, yet its presence reinforces the public perception that cannabis is a highly dangerous substance.
Your friendly neighbourhood rozzer
I must confess, I don’t like the police, having lost my respect for them about twenty years ago. “Really?” I hear you say. “So the next time you get mugged or burgled, whom will you call, Mr. Smarty-Pants?” Let me tell you a little story about my good friend Basil. In the Spring of 1997, he was set upon by about twenty drunken chavs for no reason and beaten bloody. His companion called the police (as one does in these situations); about an hour later, long after the cowardly scumbags had fled the scene, two WPCs (lady police, to the unititiated) arrived, asked a few questions and said they’d look into it. A policeman said the same thing to my friend Comedy Dave when he was burgled, back in 2002. Justice was not served in either case. So the next time your neighbourhood plod says to you that he’ll ‘look into it’, you can bet your bottom dollar that he’ll do no such thing. Smoke a joint, however, and the spineless, box-ticking pusbag will come down on you like a tonne of bricks. Oh, yes, nothing makes a British policeman feel quite so good as when he’s collaring pot smokers, kicking down the door of a brothel, or bashing in peaceful protesters. Activities like these fill up their arrest quota without endangering their worthless hides.
When cannabis use increased in the 1970s, police forces across the country delighted in raiding the houses of trendy students and throwing them in jail for daring to enjoy themselves without the aid of piss-warm beer. Those groovy cats went on to become salaried professionals in later years, but they did not forget their experiences. In one generation, respect for the rule of law turned into mistrust of authority and a sense that one could cherry-pick which laws to obey because the law was oftentimes an ass. Sadly, the Old Bill didn’t learn their lesson and to this day they implement their ‘zero tolerance’ approach to cannabis use with gay abandon, egged on by the not-in-my-backyarders. The criminal gangs who supply the herb accept the occasional raid almost as if they were taxes and continue to ply their trade. The real losers here are those humble folks who want a little bit of escapism from their miserable lives on a Friday or Saturday night without the vomiting, dehydration, headaches and nausea that usually follow a night’s heavy drinking. They’re breaking the law because they want an artificial high from something that doesn’t make people urinate in shop doorways or kick each other’s heads in. Many detectives have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo regarding narcotics; indeed, they’ve built a career out of criminalising people who are in no state to fight back. They fear, perhaps with some justification, that the government will cut their funding and they will lose their jobs, should cannabis be made legal. The police lobby, moreover, genuinely believes in that ‘gateway drug’ balderdash.
There are also religious groups who are bent on ensuring legalisation never occurs in the UK, not to mention elderly voters, who tend to be more conservative in their views and most of whom would probably not be able to distinguish a joint from a Cuban cigar. In short, 21st-century Britain is a land that is institutionally biased against any liberalisation of drug laws. This is not a land where reasoned debate flourishes, where science and logic are valued, or where the concept of personal responsibility has found purchase. No, this is a nation where the morbidly obese consider themselves morally superior to smokers, where children are wrapped in cotton wool, where every problem is blamed on immigrants, where youngsters do not feel socially accepted unless they’re wrecking their livers and destroying their eardrums in a nightclub, where UKIP – a party with a two-line manifesto – enjoys popular support, where government policy is dictated by whatever bandwagon the gutter press happens to have dreamt up that week. No, readers, you will not find enlightenment here. It would take a brave politician to reopen the debate on drugs and this land has not seen one of those in a long, long time.