You are in Library / Conferences

Cannabis : Should it be decriminalised?
Independent On Sunday debate

Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, Westminster
11th December 1997

Merrick and Annwen explain some of the conventions they used in the text

Main Speeches

Rosie Boycott
Editor of the Independent On Sunday

John Strang
Director of Research and Teaching, National Addiction Centre

Anita Roddick
Founder, The Body Shop

Nigel Evans
Member of Parliament for Ribble Valley

Gianfranco Dell Alba
Member of the European Parliament

Mike Goodman
Director, Release

Peter Stoker
Director, National Drug Prevention Alliance

Colin Blakemore
Professor of Physiology, Oxford University

David Partington
Chairman, Evangelical Alliance Coalition on Drugs

Lynn Zimmer
Associate Professor of Sociology, City University of New York


As part of the Independent On Sunday's Decriminalise Cannabis Campaign a debate was organised in central London in December 1997. Top figures from both sides attended, and a vigorous discussion took place chaired by Jon Snow. Unfortunately representatives from the Home Office as well as the Drugs Tzar, Keith Hellawell refused to attend. 

This page contains a complete transcript of the entire debate, as transcribed by Annwen and Merrick, and published in pamphlet form by Rooted Media. The transcript is not intended to promote cannabis decriminalisation or prohibition (or indeed any other stance). Enough propaganda has already been published by both sides, usually missing out the awkward points that are difficult to deal with. This is simply the full transcription of a top-level debate on the issue. All opinions are expertly put and expertly challenged. You, the reader are left to make up your own mind.

 The 60 page, A5 pamphlet is available by mail order from:

Rooted Media,
The Cardigan Centre,

145-149 Cardigan Road,

Leeds, LS6 1YJ

In the UK it costs £1 which should be paid in cash, unused UK stamps or cheques/POs made payable to 'Godhaven Ink'. Overseas it costs $5, which should be paid in cash only. All prices include post and packing.


This is a full transcription of the debate held in Westminster on 11th December 1997. We have done our best to give as true, accurate and objective a picture as possible.

These are the issues, expertly put and challenged, and we leave them to stand or fall on their own merits. As Professor John Strang says in his speech, the evidence itself is usually not only presented, but often commissioned and performed by people trying to prove their case before they start. With this, we credit you the reader with the intelligence and objectivity to make up your own mind.

Although we firmly believe in the legalisation of cannabis, this is not just another piece of legalisation propaganda. There's already enough leaflets and pamphlets campaigning for one side or another, usually missing out the awkward points that are difficult to answer. This pamphlet is different.

In trying to be true to the events of the day, we've tampered with the transcriptions as little as possible. There are factual errors from several speakers, but we've let them stand un-denoted unless it is an obvious mistake affecting the meaning of what the speaker says. For example, when Nigel Evans talks of the government 'lowering the age for selling tobacco' as evidence of a tightening of drug policy, we denote that he means raising. But when he refers to 'delta-9, or THC', we don't denote that he means delta-9 THC. Likewise when Person 23 says that cannabis doesn't touch the central nervous system so therefore it doesn't affect motor function, we don't denote that its effect on brain function has that proven effect. But when Person 13 refers to coco-pops causing alcohol abuse, we denote she means alco-pops. All our additions are in squared brackets [ ].

Due to the quality of the recording, some words are unclear on the tape, and we have noted these and their approximate lengths. If we are almost certain of the word(s), or if we're just unsure of the spelling, it is followed with a question mark in squared brackets [?]. Any breaks in the tape for turning over are also noted. The use of three dots… does not denote editing, it shows a pause in the speaker's flow before a change of direction. There are no edits, except for deleting a speaker's 'false start' on a word or phrase that they immediately correct, the deletion of hesitancies such as 'um' and 'er', and the deletion of Jon Snow's technical directions to people giving microphones to speakers in the audience (eg 'microphone four to the man in the blue shirt'). We have also dropped the occasional 'and' and replaced it with a full stop, as some speakers used sentences of a hundred words or more. None of these notes or edits have been used as a surreptitious way to change the meaning or credibility of any speaker, they are only done for the sake of readability. Although we don't agree with everything said, we have included all of it. If anyone's in doubt we'll gladly supply a copy of the tapes (two C90s).

We have left in the small number of things said on both sides that we know to be erroneous, and we have left in the audience interruptions, even though they are unhelpful to the legalisation side. To cut these would give a less true picture of the atmosphere in the hall. It would also be unfair to those who spoke against decriminalisation, as it is obviously a more daunting task to speak to an audience that largely disagrees with you. That said, one or two prohibitionists were very sensitive about being disagreed with, perhaps because, unlike those opposing them, they are used to being praised for their views.

Several speakers did not seem to have English as a first language, and so their speech, particularly when accurately transcribed, can be a little difficult to read. We have used an asterisk * after the names of those speakers. 

- Annwen and Merrick, March 199

Cannabis : Should it be decriminalised?

Jon Snow :Welcome to the Independent on Sunday debate on 'cannabis: should it be decriminalised?' My name is Jon Snow, I shall attempt to be an objective and independent chairman and, genuinely, I don't have a strongly fixed view.

I'd better declare my hand, I've been involved in a day centre where I used to work before I became a hack, it was called the 'New Horizon Youth Centre'. I started work there in 1970 and I was the director until 1973. This was a day centre for the homeless teenagers in the West End and has obviously a strong undertone of drug abuse of one sort or another, and obviously a strong interface with the criminal law, and I am chair of the project to this day. That has given me some perspective, but I have others too, and I will attempt not to enforce any of my views on you.

The idea of today is to engage people in the audience at least as much, if not more than the people on the panel. The people on the panel do reflect very different quarters in the debate, and they'll be giving you their reasons. I recognise there are extremely strong views about this, but I'm delighted to be involved in an open debate taking place within literally a stone's throw of the Mother of Parliaments. I'm delighted to see a good sprinkling of MPs [Members of Parliament] here, and certainly it's my hope and, I know, the hope of many people in this room that this issue will eventually, and sooner rather than later, be debated on the floor of the House of Commons. It is going to be debated elsewhere, as you will hear from Rosie Boycott, and I think, maybe feel, that the time has come to look much more seriously at this issue. I can only congratulate the Independent on Sunday for getting this issue upon the front page and at that point [hesitates for spontaneous applause] I'll say no more save to say we'll be fielding questions to each of our speakers and plenty of time for debate. I'd like now to call on the editor of the Independent on Sunday, Rosie Boycott. [applause]

Back to the top

Rosie Boycott : Thank you all very much for coming today. I'm very pleased to be able to welcome you here to this first, and very historic, debate because this is the first time that the whole issue of whether or not cannabis should be decriminalised has been quite so openly debated in front of so much media and, as Jon said, all within a stone's throw of the Mother of Parliaments. A very warm welcome especially to all the MPs who've come here to join us today. I wish more of your colleagues had stepped across the road, but it's great that this many of you have come.

By staging this debate we're going to give the nation the first opportunity to join in a very frank and balanced forum. It's a first because we live in a society that's been governed, where marijuana is concerned, by prejudice rather than fact. A society which has chosen to put its head in the sand when it's regarded this issue and it's stuck to a very unworkable and uncompassionate, in my view, set of values that has denied a very benign drug to MS sufferers, to recreational users, and that has made people criminals who simply should not have become criminals. By choosing to stick to this unworkable 'just say no' approach we have a wildly escalating drug problem in this country, one that nobody seems to be getting to grips with.

We launched our campaign in the newspaper at the end of September and, while I thought that it would be popular, I didn't for a second imagine quite how popular it was going to be. It is no exaggeration to say that letters pour into our office by the sackload and hundreds come in on the e-mail and we get more every week, not less, as the campaign goes on. They come from an incredibly wide range of people. I know Downing Street, in the first week after the newspaper launched the campaign, turned round and said that we were a middle-class middle-aged bunch of ex-hippies who just want to smoke joints. I wish they'd look at the letters we get because they come from working people and retired people, they come from people who work in prisons, prison governors, they come from teachers, they come from head teachers, they come from social workers, they come from lawyers, they come in very large quantities from doctors. They come from ordinary people but what has been staggering is just how much the professional community who've been at the coal face of the drug issue have written and said 'yes, you're doing the right thing, this has got to be confronted, we live in a hypocritical society and we're not doing anybody any good'.

The support has come from all over the world. MEPs [Members of the European Parliament] today in Brussels are debating the issue, we were invited there, but in fact we can't be there because we're here. Emma Benino, the fisheries minister, has spearheaded this debate which is involving a lot of people. And tomorrow in Paris the French parliament is debating it as well because last week the Health Minister Bernard Kouchner came out very strongly in favour of the legalisation of cannabis for medical grounds in France. The Americans have jumped in as well, and we are well represented here from George Soros' Lindesmith Institute who arrived yesterday in force, bringing with them their excellent book 'Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts' which is on sale, and has been distributed a lot through the paper. They're thinking of setting up a drug think tank institute here and I hope that that comes to pass.

A very few British MPs have stood up publicly, and to them thankyou, but in private I'd like you all to know that many many people from the Labour Party and the Tory Party have expressed their support for this campaign. Westminster, though, has been silent and I find that quite astonishing, especially considering that both the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, and The Master of the Rolls, Lord Wolfson, have been moved over the last few weeks to come out publicly and say that the time is right for there to be a debate. And I guess that their response is one of the reasons why I'm disappointed that neither the Home Office nor the new Drug Tsar have seen fit to come here today and join us. However, I did yesterday receive a letter from the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who said, 'As you know I am only too happy to debate the issue,'- now that's a first - 'My opinion and the government's on this subject are well known. We are against the legalisation of cannabis and I would be happy for you to pass this view on to the conference.' Well, I'm passing it on.

But this is an issue that won't lie down, and however much the government, and The Sun and The News of the World and some of the other newspapers might like it to, it's out in the open and it's not going back under the covers. Next time I hope we see Mr Straw's willingness to discuss this issue take place over the road in the Mother of Parliaments.

Finally, before we begin, a very big thankyou to Richard Branson and Anita Roddick who sponsored today's event. Richard is, as you all know, looking for his balloon and not with us, but he sends everyone his best wishes, says 'have a great day' and that he's right behind us in what we want to do. When we launched the campaign he and Anita were the first people to sign up. Anita is here with us and you'll be hearing from her in a few minutes. Now I'm going to hand you back to Jon, and have a good morning. [applause]

Back to the top

Jon Snow :Thankyou very much Rosie. Now Gianfranco Dell Alba, who is an MEP from Italy who was our first speaker, has been held up in flight and by nothing worse I hope. As soon as he comes we'll put him on because we know he's got to go away again. I'd therefore start the ball rolling by asking Professor John Strang to speak to us. He is the director of the National Addiction Centre, he's been consultant advisor to the Department of Health for the last decade, he's a member of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, he chaired the Department of Health working group which prepared its guidelines for all doctors on the management of drug misuse, he was advisor to the government task force into treatment effectiveness. He was also Clinical Director for the drug and alcohol services at Maudsley Hospital, Director of Research and Teaching at the National Addiction Centre, so he must know one or two things about drugs. John Strang.

John Strang :Thankyou very much. 'Cannabis: Should it be decriminalised?' I have grave doubts as to whether a simple yes-or-no debate is a sufficiently sensitive approach. Decision making on such an important matter should, in my opinion, be guided heavily by findings from independent objective study of the evidence. Sadly I find that science has not served the UK public debate at all well in this field. In recent years the cannabis debate has been eclipsed by other important drug policy debates in which cannabis would seem largely irrelevant.

However, the position of cannabis within the criminal justice system has actually changed profoundly over the last 20 years. For example there's been an extensive decriminalisation of the offence of cannabis possession across most of the UK with, to choose one illustration, the policy of on-the-spot fines and confiscation of small quantities of cannabis found by customs at Heathrow. Or, to choose another example, the proportion of cannabis offences dealt with by the police by confiscation and the issuing of a caution has increased from only 10% of cases in the mid-80s to over 50% of cases today. My disquiet is that such profound changes could be made to the way in which the law is applied in this country without public consultation, public debate or, I suspect, even public awareness.

My weakness in contributing to the cannabis debate is my lack of previous involvement in this debate. But I believe this is probably also one of my strengths. Perhaps I carry less baggage and may be better able to look objectively at the available evidence. It's for this reason that I and my colleagues at the National Addiction Centre have been seeking charitable funding, and we've now secured partial funding, to make a review of different aspects of the cannabis debate which I shall outline in a moment.

But let us be in no doubt about the difficulty in the task ahead. Much of the research work itself and the interpretations made of this work are the products of individuals and organisations who already hold fixed polarised views. Whatever rational or crazy views you hold there is, somewhere within the Rorschach inkblot, a picture that reflects your own prejudice. So what should we, as a responsible society, be seeking to achieve from our drug policy? We need to find a set of policies that are the most effective both at reducing individual harm and the overall extent of this harm within society. But here I believe we could learn much by looking over the fence, looking at the lessons we are now able to learn about alcohol and tobacco, where we can now identify the basic laws which govern the relationship between public policy, levels of use, and the levels of harm in society that result from that use.

And so I believe we should now conduct a careful audit not only of the evidence of harms which may be associated with cannabis use but of the seriousness and frequency with which these harms may occur, so that they can then be considered alongside similar examinations of the harms which may result from our response to the problem in the first place.

Seven separate areas can be identified in which data must exist out there which could be brought together to contribute to a better quality of debate in the UK. In the project that we're starting we'll be bringing these data together. 

Firstly, what significance should be attached to the different forms of cannabis? Particularly in view of the emergence of cannabis with a much higher purity with greater concentrations of the psychoactive ingredients. What relationship does the emergence of these high purity forms have to patterns of use or to resulting blood and brain levels of the drug? Our findings in this area are then likely to have a significant bearing on our considerations in other sections, such as the possible impact of cannabis use on driving.

For the second area there is a clear need for an independent objective assessment, independent with a small i, of the various published findings of the physical harm resulting from cannabis use. While some physical damage may be closely related in time to the event of cannabis use, there'll be other types of harm which only become manifest with some considerable distance in time as in the case, to take obvious examples, of the different lung cancers and exposure to substances as varied as cigarette smoke and asbestos. Important new work has been emerging in recent years about different forms of cancer which appear at first glance to be associated with long term cannabis use, although we'll obviously need to pay careful attention to the strength of the relationship between the cannabis use and those harms, and the extent to which they're likely to occur.

For the third area there is a need for equivalent debates which explore the relationship between cannabis use and various reported psychological harms. Here again we want to concentrate not only on whether the harms occur, but also look at the frequency with which they're likely to occur, and whether they may be transient or persistent.

For the fourth area I'd look at a critical examination of the popular concept of cannabis as a gateway drug. What exactly is the evidence in this area and what does it mean? We have here a typical example of public and scientific confusion between causes, correlates and consequences. It's clear that, for the vast majority of those individuals who end up in treatment programs for their addiction to heroin or cocaine for example, cannabis will have been their first illicit drug of use, and hence it will have been a 'gateway' through which they will have passed. However, this helps us very little in our debate, since a similar case could be put forward for cigarettes and alcohol being similar apparent gateways. Crucially, we need to know whether the involvement in cannabis use had any causal relationship with the subsequent involvement with other drugs, or whether it just so happens to be the sort of non-approved behaviour that would be more likely to be found in such a group. In essence, if we were able to alter the extent of passage through this gateway, ie to reduce the extent of cannabis use, would this alter the number who eventually become involved in other drugs such as heroin and cocaine?

My fifth area concerns the impairing effect of cannabis on driving. To what extent should this be a cause of substantial public concern? Especially in view of the much more widespread use of cannabis by an age group who are already much more likely to be involved in road traffic accidents and deaths. We know that cannabis, as a fat-soluble drug, remains present in the system for far longer than some other types of drug such as alcohol, and reportedly exerts an impairing effect on motor performance way beyond the sense of intoxication. But how significant is this degree of impairment? Perhaps if we use alcohol as our yardstick we may be better able to contribute to a better informed public debate.

My penultimate area concerns the reports of therapeutic effects of cannabis and its derivatives. I have to say that speaking personally I don't find this at all surprising, and I would expect us to study in a systematic way the different component parts of this raw product to identify the active therapeutic ingredients so as to bring them into the treatment domain, in just the same way as medical research has done since time immemorial with, for example, the extraction of digitalis from foxglove, morphine and codeine from raw opium, and the development of a wide range of antibiotics. Perhaps the most exciting prospect here might be the identification of new classes of drug which may prove effective where existing treatments have been unsuccessful. The recent substantial review of this area by the British Medical Association is, in my opinion, an excellent starting point for somebody wishing to get a better understanding of the different areas of possible therapeutic benefit. 

And finally, there's much that could be gained from a careful scrutiny of changes in national policy and legal status which have occurred in different countries and different states in the world, perhaps especially over the last 30 years. I continue to be disappointed by the manipulation of these data by parties with vested interests and pre-formed views. Precisely what has happened in Holland over the last 20 years? And what happened in the different states in the US during the 1970s when the status of cannabis possession as an offence variously changed? By considering these different countries as case studies, and comparing them against the changes seen to occur in comparable countries over the same period, we may be able to make more informed judgements on the likely results of any changes on our approach within the UK.

So let me conclude. I believe that the public debate has, in recent years, been poorly served by science. The cannabis debate has been largely eclipsed by the seemingly more important concerns about drug misuse and HIV, and more recently concerns about the drugs-crime connection. Bearing in mind the marked increase in prevalence of cannabis use over the last ten to twenty years, cannabis now warrants special consideration, and with colleagues at the National Addiction Centre we've recently begun a systematic gathering together of the international evidence on these different seven areas. We'll be reporting in three months on this. I trust that over this period we will go some way to contributing to a much better quality of scientific and public debate. Thankyou very much. [applause]

Jon Snow : Well I wonder if we could pick up specifically on one element there that you raised, which is the therapeutic use of cannabis. There are two people here who have a particular point they'd like to make, and I'd like just to ask Barry Clark. You suffer with MS and you are denied the opportunity to use cannabis in a therapeutic way. Tell us why you're convinced it might make a difference.

Barry Clark : I was told twelve years ago by my doctor when I was diagnosed with MS that I had three years before I'd end up in a wheelchair. After those three years he advised me to take cannabis. My neurologist also advised me to take cannabis and my main therapist also advised me to do the same. I'm still walking today. I basically have got to be a criminal to take the cannabis and to grow it. I just want to know why I can't grow it in the privacy of my own home and smoke it in the privacy of my own home. I don't drink alcohol, I just ask if I can take cannabis for my multiple sclerosis. That's all I ask. Please. [applause]

Jon Snow :Thankyou Barry very much. We have somebody here who has actually been asking that question of the Department of Health and of the government and that is Austin Mitchell MP. Austin on microphone two. 

Austin Mitchell : Thankyou. I'm open minded about the question of legalisation, I'm here to exhale rather than to inhale. But I am concerned about the therapeutic case because in 1971 cannabis, which had been available on prescription, after that time was transferred to Schedule I of the Misuse of Drugs Act, defined as a drug which has no therapeutic value. And since then everything has been changed by this BMA [British Medical Association] report which actually says that cannabis has therapeutic value. So on Monday I took a delegation from the Alliance of Cannabis Therapy [he means Alliance of Cannabis Therapeutics] a very high powered delegation, in fact so high powered I couldn't see why I was there, and doctors, to ask first of all that it be transferred to Schedule II so that it could be available on prescription. And secondly that the Home Office and the Department of Health should encourage research in it. We were told on the first issue there was no political will to transfer it to Schedule II, and on the second we were told that nobody had applied to do research, which of course is pure balderdash because it's a chicken and egg situation. No drug company is going to do research or purify and develop a drug which is illegal and which can't be prescribed under Schedule II. So we were given the runaround, and we can be given the runaround in that way for ever and ever. It's a chicken and egg situation in which the Home Office says it won't do anything because there is no research, but no research is done because it's illegal, and meanwhile thousands and thousands of multiple sclerosis sufferers are being forced into the backstreets into the illegal market to buy something that they know is helpful in the treatment of their condition. No research has been done on it but they are forced into illegality. Now this is a terrible situation, the law's coming into disrepute, prosecutions are being abandoned, we know that the courts are imposing very lenient sentences but people still get a criminal record and it is absolutely wrong that multiple sclerosis victims should be treated in that kind of fashion and driven to illegality. Something has to be done and quickly on the therapeutic use of cannabis. [applause]

[Several hands go up in the audience] 

Jon Snow : This remains on the issue of therapeutic use.

Person 1 :I'm not expert in these fields at all, but I understand that Nabalone is an accepted substitute for cannabis for use medically.

Jon Snow : That's been prescribed to Barry. Why is it an inadequate substitute as far as you're concerned? 

Barry Clark : My doctor wanted to prescribe me Nabalone, but he didn't want to because he'd heard it was addictive whereas cannabis wasn't. He'd far prefer it that I took cannabis and bought it illegally than take the Nabalone.[slight applause] He's very sensible, he told me not to touch it.

Jon Snow : Perhaps we can ask you, John Strang, then. You say that this is one of the key areas that you will want to research. Will you be allowed to, given the point that Austin Mitchell made? Will there be a dispassionate view of the therapeutic uses of cannabis as a result of your research, and how long will it take for you to devise it?

John Strang : We've already had that BMA report which is, I think, a very good bringing together of the existing evidence, and the work we're doing will be probably along the lines of the BMA report, looking at what's already in the public domain. We need to keep a sense of perspective on how drug treatment developments in the therapeutic arena move forward, they tend to be on the basis of case reports where somebody observes what seems to be a therapeutic benefit. You then have a series of cases that report that benefit, then you have double-blind treatment trials. We have, as you mentioned, tried to identify what are the ingredients within cannabis that, if they do confer benefit, what are those ingredients, and then I think the notion that one has of treatments would be that, whether it was Nabalone or delta-9-THC or whatever, you could have that as a drug that would be prescribed. I don't think one has visions of a gentleman or lady sitting there with a packet of Rizla to get their drug treatment for their MS.

Jon Snow : But putting it boldly, will you be able to conduct the research? 

John Strang : There is work already… I mean, we aren't looking to do treatment into MS or treatment into glaucoma because that's not our territory. Those bits of work are being done and there's a very substantial report on those works. It does seem to me that if the law is an obstacle for bringing those treatments into the treatment arena then that is ridiculous. I can never quite remember, twenty years on from the drugs bill I can't remember my different schedules so…but I also think there is a danger that this relatively straightforward issue of bringing treatments into the public arena will get hijacked by a much more complicated wider debate about cannabis in general.

Person 2 : I'd just like to link the matter of therapeutics with what you talked about in the inconsistency of the enforcement of the law. It is still possible for the courts to sentence someone to fourteen years in prison for knowingly permitting a person or persons to smoke cannabis on their premises. Now that could apply to a carer, a wife, a husband, whoever the householder is. I've been a registered psychiatric nurse for almost twenty years. I was convicted of knowingly permitting a person or persons to smoke cannabis on my private premises and that has had serious effects on my career.

But where you look at the inconsistencies of the enforcement of the law, you have a difficulty now for people anywhere under 50 years old. Many many of those have breached the law in consenting or permitting it on their premises. Every prison governor in the country is guilty! [laughter]. I'd just say that what it does do is it breeds mistrust with policemen on the beat. I'm on the parish council I talk to policemen month-in month-out, but there's always that thought at the back of my mind he has got the power to ask me to turn out my pockets. And if Tony Blair can sit with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and say barefaced that in all his years at Oxford, singing in the Ugly Rumours and everything else, that he's never come across it, I'm sorry, we've got four and a half years until the next election, he can get real. We can deal with this issue, we don't have to be fearful of nobody accepting it. [applause]

Jon Snow : We'll just take two more specifically on the therapeutic issues that have been raised and then we must move on.

Person 3 :On the therapeutic issues it is wrong to say there has been no research, there has in fact been research if we turn to other countries. Dr. Franklin[?] in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry said it was not helpful to Parkinson's disease. Dr. Greenburg[?], Clinical Pharmacology and Therapy 1994, said it was not helpful for multiple sclerosis. Dr Donald Silburg[?], Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Chief of Neurology said 'I have not found any legitimate medical or scientific works which shows marijuana is medically effective in treating multiple sclerosis or spasticity. The use of marijuana, especially for long term treatment, would be worse than the illness itself.' [laughter].

Person 4 :All that I'd like to say is that there does seem to be a fair bit of comment going around, and it may be shilly-shally [around one word unclear] this sort of thing, with regards to the mention of previous research, I'm afraid it does work. I've got MS, I didn't ask for it, and I've found out myself that cannabis does work. It's not a cure sadly, but it does work, and I do think it would be nice if some sort of research could take place to push this forward. I have, with MS, along with everybody else who's got MS. You find out about these things by yourself.

Jon Snow : By 'work' you mean it alleviates the immediate condition but doesn't cure, is that it? 

Person 4 : Yes, that's it.

Jon Snow : What happens?

Person 4 : It alleviates some of the condition certainly. With regard to spasticity it helps your legs. There was one occasion when I did take cannabis and I woke up the following morning and I wondered if I'd got my old legs back. That only lasted half an hour, but by god that half an hour was well worth it. It also allows you to spend a comfortable night without having to get up to go to the loo every two minutes, you get to sleep better.

Jon Snow : Thankyou very much. [applause]

Person 5 : I understand that people who use it therapeutically would like to grow their own, they don't want a pill made for them where a constituent has been taken from cannabis and given separately. I think it should be used as a whole otherwise you're going to get side effects, and why shouldn't people be allowed to grow their own cannabis to use it themselves and they know the quality, they don't have to buy it from somewhere else where the quality is unknown. They need to know the quality and the strength, and what better way than to grow their own? [applause]

Jon Snow : I'm hoping that we shall return to the grow your own element later on in the debate, but just for a final comment on the point you've made. I will pick up on other people later on. [Paul Flynn MP actively indicates one questioner] Alright, one last question there, you're so persistent. To have Paul Flynn speak for you is clearly an omen.

Person 6 : I've got multiple sclerosis and I'm a member of the Alliance of Cannabis Therapeutics, I work with Austin [Mitchell MP] , we just spoke to the Department of Health on Monday. A hell of a lot of people use it for multiple sclerosis and other conditions. I think growing it at home isn't quite the answer. We want to give encouragement and help to those people who use it and aren't capable of doing that. A lot of people are terminally ill or bed-bound, they can't grow their own cannabis, they need it to be supplied, or helped, but properly in its natural form in some kind of way and there is just…we think of the consequences and put therapeutically there's no question. And I think, particularly therapeutically, we don't even compare it to alcohol or tobacco, we compare it to prescription drugs we're given. We're given the most horrible prescription drugs including Nabalone which I've taken in synthetic form. It's horrible. And we're given steroids, antidepressants, painkillers, muscle relaxants, you name it. We're given valium as a muscle relaxant. Compare it to those and for us there's no question. [applause]

Jon Snow : Final word to John Strang and then we must move on from this, and then I promise to come to you later in the morning.

John Strang :It seems to me that some of the contributions we've had today illustrate what I fear about the cannabis debate, that it's demoted into a simple yes-no issue. If we think that there may be therapeutic benefits, I'd imagine everybody here would wish those to be available to those who are suffering and could derive benefit. If we presume that can only be delivered or can only be wrapped up in an argument about decriminalisation, legalisation or growing your own, I think it confuses the issue. If, for example, the evidence on chronic lung disease is proven to be the case we would then discover that the value of the therapeutic product was lost because the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. I would far prefer to see research on what was the active therapeutic ingredient to see whether we could deliver the benefit without the associated harms.

Back to the top

Jon Snow : Thankyou very much, and thankyou for a very helpful start to the morning. [applause] I'd now like to call on Anita Roddick to talk to us. She's the founder of The Body Shop, patron of many organisations, including START the Skin Treatment And Research Trust, Body And Soul for women and families with HIV and AIDS, a board member of organisations such as Human Rights Watch USA. Anita has won countless awards for her unstinting work on worldwide environmental and gender issues, and among these are the Banskier[?] International Environmental Achiever Award, a UNEP[?] award, 25th anniversary of Women [one word unintelligible] in Action award, etc. She doesn't really need any introduction, she is sponsoring this conference today, give her a warm welcome.

Anita Roddick : Picture this: Your mother is in her 70s and is struggling with cancer. Her only hope lies in chemotherapy treatments which she is now undergoing. You visit her often, and though she tries to put out a brave face on the situation, she admits that the chemo has put her in a constant state of unbearable nausea. You remember back to the time when you had nausea and your mother looked after you. You also remember realising that time that, of all the aches and pains you ever felt, nausea was the most intense. Was it something to do with the stomach's proximity to the spine? You ask her 'What do the doctors say?' She tells you that he said that, by far, the remedy for chemo's nausea was marijuana. He says that if they lived in parts of the United States he would be able to prescribe it, but here in the United Kingdom they both would be arrested. It is time to change the law.

I want to talk today about compassion and I want to put a human face on this issue. The face may belong to Elizabeth Ivol, a 50year old woman in the Orkneys with multiple sclerosis. Marijuana is the only thing she's found that lifts that numbness of the MS and that eases the pain in her spine, but she could face jail for growing her own. Or, on the other hand, it might belong to Robert Randall from Sarasota, Florida. For thirty odd years he's been diagnosed with glaucoma, doctors told him he would be blind within five years, today he can still see as well as he did then, all credit due to the government-issued marijuana he gets every day. I doubt that any one of us can have a hard time conjuring up the terror of blindness. Sight is the sense that we most fear losing. I can't see out of one of my eyes. Unfortunately it's nothing that marijuana can fix, but I know that if I was one of the millions of people suffering from glaucoma or retinitus pigmentosa and there was a substance that promised me relief, I would expect to have access to it and I would not expect to be treated as a criminal for using it. Likewise if I was suffering from the wasting syndrome of AIDS or I was racked by the agonies of migraines or any kind of chronic pain, or if I couldn't breathe because I was asthmatic, or if I had epileptic fits, I would want access. The fact is there is a substance with a proven long term ethicacy in treating all the above conditions that would seem, to me, a cause for celebration. Which leads me to one inescapable conclusion - the official stance on medical marijuana is inhumane and must be changed.

It also is utterly inconsistent with what we have known for the last five thousand years since the Chinese wrote about the medical benefits of the cannabis plant. In the ancient world it was an asset to any physicians pharmacopoeia. Even a hundred years ago, our own dear Queen Victoria's doctor wrote that cannabis was one of the most valuable medicines we possess. He claimed it was the most effective treatment for pain he knew of. So what does modern medicine prefer for the relief of many of the causes for many of these pains? It's morphine. Now that's undeniably effective for many things, but the line between the dose that relieves pain and the dose that causes death can get very fine. That risk does not lay with marijuana. As for marijuana's properties as an anti-convulsant; much praise in the nineteenth century. What does modern medicine prefer to prescribe? Phenobarbital or Diazepam, regular users develop a tolerance, even become addicted, which is really ironic in light of the fact that addiction is always the big demon raised by those who see decriminalisation of marijuana as a first step on a slippery downward slope. Marijuana has absolutely no proven addictive power. It is not a so-called gateway drug. So I ask you, what is more addictive, marijuana or ignorance?

Now I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to claim that marijuana is a miracle drug, a cure alternative to the drugs that doctors usually prescribe, but there are enough people who have claimed benefits from its use that it surely ought to be included in the available range of effective medications. I look at this and I think, 'what a Byzantine world' - marijuana with proven medical benefits is banned, cigarettes with proven, factual fatal consequence are a politically protected industry. Alcohol consumed in excess is legal but deadly, marijuana consumed in moderation is illegal but beneficial. 

Ask yourself the question, why is marijuana illegal? Is it because it's dangerous? Not in comparison with alcohol which kills a small percentage of its users every year, let alone how many innocent victims on the roads. Certainly not in comparison with tobacco. When has cannabis ever been known to kill anyone? Or maybe it's because marijuana is addictive. No, but tobacco and alcohol are and they're both legal. Clearly if addictiveness is held up as a reason for a ban then these two should be banned not cannabis. Oh, and goodbye coffee. Pharmacologists rank caffeine as more addictive that cannabis.

For me, our policy is random, it's foolish, it's harmful and must be changed. It may look like wilful ignorance but what it actually is, in my mind, is standard government-issue disinformation. The myth-making about the evils of marijuana conceals the fact that medicalisation of marijuana isn't a health issue at all, it's about politics and it's about economics [applause]. In other words 'let's follow the money'.

In this case one very obvious trail leads to the pharmacology giants, where are the drug companies here today, who remind us that they seek to help those in pain, in the fight to decriminalise? Early this century liquid cannabis extract was marketed to meet a massive demand for medical marijuana but nowadays there's no money in the real thing so they're marketing a synthetic equivalent of THC, marijuana's active element, neatly packaged in a capsule, government-approved as a treatment for nausea and wasting syndrome. But one such drug is marinol. 'It's much better than crude marijuana' they say, but it isn't anywhere near. A vomiting patient cannot swallow a capsule. Marinol gets the thumb down from people it's intended to help, and I might add at rather greater cost than a joint. Marinol I hear is thirty five pounds a pop whereas a joint with the same dosage costs between sixty pence and three pounds. It is, for example, not unusual for AIDS patients to gain from twenty to thirty pounds when they start smoking marijuana, many of those on marinol claim it doesn't stimulate their appetite at all, besides which the drug has been implicated in psychotic episodes. Again, a reaction which does not apply to natural marijuana. 

Now the politics are every bit as backward as the economics. Our policy turns the sick into criminals. They are compelled to turn to the underworld for their supply. This sort of policy clearly damages us all. If we want to reduce the harm we ought to spend less time negatively regulating individual behaviour and more time promoting overall social responsibility. However, US Drugs Czar General Barry McCaffrey has stated that the decriminalisation of marijuana for medical purposes 'sends the wrong signal to the young', and Jack Straw recently parroted this sentence here. How can compassion ever be seen as the wrong signal? Does that mean compassion is a wrong signal too? How in this day and age can we regard as criminals those seriously ill disabled people who simply want to do the best to take care of themselves? How can anyone stand by and not clamour for change when people are going blind, when people are becoming crippled, and when people are going to starve just because some daft policy stops them getting effective medicine? Decriminalising cannabis for compassionate medical use is at least a light at the end of the tunnel for some people living with AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma. It would bring desperately needed relief and dignity to their lives. So who do they think they are in denying them that? 

And what about common sense? It shakes the credibility of the state to continue to maintain this position that is so easily disproved by peoples personal experience or a simple review of the facts. There is a safe, natural, effective alternative to the standard drugs I've mentioned. It's called marijuana, and some day you and I may need it. It's unreasonable, it's arbitrary and it's capricious to stand between ill people and valuable treatment. Thankyou. [applause]

Back to the top

Jon Snow : What I'd like to do now because we ran over a bit long with the previous one is, A: To thank Anita very warmly and, B: To suggest that we move on to our next speaker and then we'll take some questions after that. I'd like to introduce you to Nigel Evans MP he's the Conservative MP for Ribble Valley is currently front bench constitutional spokesman, he's the former chairman of the All-Party Drugs Misuse Group, and he's extremely active in the chamber, on committee, and in his constituency. Nigel Evans, thankyou very much. [applause]

Nigel Evans : I'm grateful for the opportunity to come here. Whereas my views may not be in accord with perhaps the majority of people here, as a Conservative Party supporter who grew up in Wales I'm not unused to that particular feeling [laughter]. But I do believe that this debate is part of the education which needs to take place in this country, so I'm grateful for the opportunity and the invitation to be here today. 

It's said that the debate is really not taking place in the House of Commons. Well, there have been debates in the House of Commons on the drugs issue, I've taken part in them myself, and I know that as far as various committee meetings as well, out of the glare perhaps of the publicity of the chamber they certainly go on in the House of Commons. [Tape ends, around 10 seconds missing] been mentioned from time to time here, the policy seems to be getting even harder, it's difficult to say anything nice about Jack Straw but at least I'll say that one thing. There's also the Drugs Committee operating under Ann Taylor who's Leader of the House of Commons looking at all inter-departmental and agency operations of the drugs policy, and we're looking at what additional policies might be needed to get a grip on the drugs menace facing Britain today. 

Now decriminalisation comes into fashion and remains there for a lot of young people and I've done enough TV shows and other debates to know that there are a number of young people, who say no to ecstasy, no to a number of other drugs, but they do say yes to cannabis because they don't see it quite in the same mark as all these other particular drugs [slight applause]. The argument that's used is the cost of enforcing the current government policy, somewhere in the region of £500 million. And people say that it would be far better if you could spend that money in education, in research, even spend it, after last night, on lone parents [government had voted to cut welfare payments to lone parents], anything but supplying what they see as just a thimble full of grout into what, obviously as this problem is concerned, is as large as the Great Wall of China. They say we're whistling in the wind. Indeed, treating addicts is massively expensive and that's on top of that cost, as is the enormous cost of crime related to drugs in general. And I'm never persuaded by just decriminalising anything, that that is really any answer at all to reducing the crime level, because that's an argument that could be extended to anything. 

But it's not just the financial cost that leads to the idea of me being opposed to the legalisation or the decriminalising of drugs, it's also the human cost, and we've heard a little bit about that this morning already. The argument that you hear so often in favour of decriminalisation is that relaxing controls on the drug will have little or no effect on the levels of consumption, is again several degrees, I believe, removed from reality. More availability does mean more use, and that's really more problems. You only have to look at the number of people smoking and drinking alcohol which is going to be mentioned time and time again. And I'd better say, because Paul Flynn is saying, I've got a retail convenience store in Swansea and part of the product range is tobacco, so Paul, I'll get it out of the way. Paul, time and time again when we argue drugs in the House of Commons, calls me a drugs pusher [applause and laughter] but that doesn't add anything to the debate as far as I'm concerned. But whilst alcohol and tobacco are two eggs that have been scrambled, you can't unscramble those particular eggs, and at a time when this government is looking at lowering [he means raising] the age of selling tobacco to people, I hardly think that this government is going to start towards progressing towards decriminalising cannabis.

So what is this drug, as far as I'm concerned, that is put on a par sometimes with alcohol and tobacco? The BMA report has been mentioned today and quite rightly so. In it, it talks about cannabis containing over 400 chemical compounds amongst which more than 60 cannabinoids have been identified, the main constituents of which, at least for the purposes of getting high is delta-9, or THC. Now THC is the psychoactive ingredient in the drug which after smoking a joint is rapidly distributed to the main organs including the brain, lungs and kidneys. Maximum concentrations are reached within 15 minutes along with the maximum psychological and physiological effects. [someone shouts 'all from experience!' to slight laughter] Then it accumulates in the fatty tissues of the body to be released slowly. This means that its elimination from the body is extremely slow and the elimination of a single dose it is reported in some cases can take up to 30 days. This is all coming from the BMA report, so, you know, laugh at me as you will. Just because you disagree…hold on now, I have to say that those who are speaking against the decriminalisation of cannabis are in the minority as far as this platform is concerned, so at least listen, as I will listen to all the arguments on the other side [applause]. 

[around six unclear words due to applause] decriminalisation of this drug, for the possession of small amounts of the drug for personal use to be allowed. Now I disagree, a recent article in the Evening Standard claimed that drug pushers are targeting new students and that more than half of them try illegal drugs during their first days on campus. In a recent survey carried out on young people in 1996, around a third of the 14 to 15 year olds claimed to have tried cannabis at least once, still a minority, and about 7% of 12 to 13 year olds claimed the same thing. Although high usage is often cited as a reason for decriminalising the drug so that it can be controlled, quality levels assured, and all the rest that follows, the figures I have given show that it is still a minority of young people who have tried the drug. I maintain that keeping the drug as a controlled substance is the only way that we can keep the numbers of young abusers down. I believe that decriminalisation would remove the stigma of criminality from the use of cannabis and would therefore result in increased usage.

I want to give one example in the past which is Alaska, which may not be the most conventional example but I think it's the most appropriate one, which is that in 1975 a lawyer won a case in the Supreme Court to decriminalise cannabis for personal use on the grounds that there was no compelling government interest in keeping the drug a controlled substance. But it was only decriminalised for adult use, which is the significant point, because the rate of use by Alaskan minors became twice as high as in other states. For 12 to 17 year olds lifetime experience of cannabis was 51.6%, whilst the national average was about 24%, so that's exactly what we in this country must strive to avoid. Tellingly, Alaska recriminalised the drug in 1990 because of increased use. 

Obviously health considerations are the major factor, both in keeping the drug controlled and in peoples reasons for not overly smoking it. Whilst there have been no conclusive studies carried out into the harmful effects of cannabis, there is plenty of anecdotal and other evidence to suggest that if you indulge yourself that you're going to do more harm than you may realise. The BMA estimates that smoking a joint containing only herbal cannabis leads to three times greater the tar inhalation than smoking a tobacco cigarette. They also say that the levels of tar retained in the respiratory tract are three times higher. Accordingly, the chronic smoking of cannabis increases the risk of cardio-vascular disease, bronchitis, emphysema and carcinomas of the lung. And I can hear all the coughing that's going on here this morning, I'm sure it's got something to do with the winter as opposed to cannabis intake. It's also been noted that cannabis users between the ages of 25 and 40 years have had more head and neck cancers than is normal. 

And then there are the effects that cannabis use has on the mental health of the user. According to Heather Ashton[?], Professor of Clinical Psychopharmacology at Newcastle University, if you visit any mental hospital you will find young patients who have gone crazy from smoking strong cannabis [laughter]. It has been reported that heavy cannabis users consistently report higher negative moods and lower positive moods than light cannabis users. There is no evidence to suggest that smoking cannabis is harm-free. A recent survey of young people showed that health worries would make three out of five users seriously consider stopping their use in the future.

Now those in the pro-decriminalisation camp often see themselves as liberals in the long tradition of John Stuart Mill, arguing that as long as they're not harming others the state has no business stopping them from doing what they want to do to themselves, and that's all very well. But the fact is that when people do take drugs they're not only harming themselves but they are harming others because, whatever is said to the contrary, I do believe that it will act as a gateway drug to others, which then leads them on to other things. Two reports published in science this year give compelling evidence. The reports demonstrated real similarities between the effects of cannabis on the brain and the effects of cocaine and heroin which are infamous for being highly addictive, although, as has been said, cannabis in itself is not addictive. Now the BMA report has been mentioned time and time again, and we've heard anecdotal evidence this morning from the audience about people who are suffering from certain conditions and they believe that the therapeutic, as opposed to the recreational, use of cannabis is useful to them, and I cannot say no to that. But what I do say is that more research is needed into those elements within cannabis which is being used as a form of medicine, as a therapeutic use, and, just like any other medicinal drug that is available, it's got to go through stringent controls and then, and only then, should it then become available to those who are suffering from certain other conditions. 

I will give one example, if I may, which again involves beer and tobacco, which is this argument that if you just made it available to certain people then it wouldn't become generally used by other people, or it wouldn't become more generally available. If you look at the ports with the single market when indicative levels of beer and tobacco were introduced so that they weren't controlled into just 200 cigarettes and however many it was. You now go to Dover or any of the ports of entry and beer and tobacco is actually flooding into this country tax-free or for low levels of tax because people have seen a loophole there and they are exploiting it. If we were to do the same with cannabis there is no doubt whatsoever that if it was then to be made available in certain cases like the lady mentioned, like 'why can't I grow it myself and then use it myself because I would know exactly the strength', that argument would be used time and time again by people as a justification of why they were growing cannabis, and there is no doubt, as the Alaskan experiment itself has shown, that it would become more widely available.

As I said right at the beginning, if we could unscramble the eggs of tobacco and alcohol to lesser extents I'm sure that this government would. And as I say, it's looking even now at lowering [he means raising] the age of those who are able to buy tobacco. Going down this route I believe is not going to help anybody. Thankyou very much. [applause]

Jon Snow : I'm going to take a few quick pithy points from the floor here.

Person 7 :Thankyou. If Nigel Evans is right that cannabis is a gateway drug, does he not think that that's got something to do with its illegality. [moderate applause]

Nigel Evans :In many cases, as I've said, I believe that if you were to decriminalise it, or legalise it, but if you were to decriminalise it then many people would believe that signals were being sent almost endorsing the fact that 'yes, it's OK, we've had to put a small health warning on it, to the product', and then a lot of other people would be induced to going on to try other things, as a lot of people who try ecstasy do go on to try other drugs, and a lot of people who take cannabis go on to try other things. But as John said earlier on, more research does need to be done. I would love to have those statistics at my fingertips to prove that those who start off on cannabis go on to other drugs as a causal effect rather than 'well they would have gone on to other drugs anyway if cannabis hadn't been there'.

Person 8 :My name is Brian Iddon, I'm the Labour Member of Parliament for Bolton South East [applause] . I've been campaigning on this issue since a five year old child was shot dead in Bolton in the summer [as a bystander allegedly during a fight between drug dealers]. Nigel and I have appeared on programmes and we appeared on Upfront last week in Granadaland and 75% of the audience, 150,000 callers to Granada Television, voted in favour of decriminalisation of cannabis. I think Nigel is out of touch with the public [applause]. I've had hundreds of letters and the people who want cannabis decriminalising the most, in fact drugs in general decriminalising, are the people who've lost loved ones in drug-related killings and other incidents.

And I just want to make the point, I went to see George Howarth the other day, minister responsible for drug policy, and I asked George how many people were using cannabis according to Home Office statistics. 1.5million was the answer, 1996 survey. Well, the Home Office are out of touch - at least three million, and that's with a small 'c' Nigel, at least three million users of cannabis, and five to six million is probably nearer the truth. Now, I want to pose Nigel Evans and people who think like him a simple question: Do you think that the law is working with respect to cannabis? The best laws are the laws that the vast majority of people are prepared to live with. Nobody is prepared to live with the 1971 Act, except Nigel Evans and a few others, regarding cannabis. And that's why I want the law looking at, particularly with respect to cannabis, because the law is an ass, it isn't working [applause].

One last point - If you use cannabis in Bolton you're likely to be locked up very quickly and fined. In Camden here in London you can buy it openly on the streets and smoke it under the noses of the police. Now that is wrong too. Why should people, Nigel, be treated differently by police forces across the country? Effectively, some police forces have already decriminalised cannabis, and that too is wrong. [applause]

Person 9 :I'm Frank Cook, I'm also Labour, but I came here to learn, and I think I am but I'd like to learn a little more, Nigel, if I may, because your reference to gateway drugs and the characteristic of cannabis really isn't related to evidence is it, because one could make the same kind of accusations against Cow And Gate or Ostermilk, so really I need the evidence to justify the comment you've made. Further, your comment on Alaska, the [one word unintelligible] to recriminalise the drug was based simply, according to your statement, on the number of people who were using it. In other words, they recriminalised it because more people were using it. Now that really brings me to the main point, the thrust of your talk - you made no reference to therapeutic use and the need to legalise that application and then you made no evidence to kind of antisocial effects of people being allowed to use it. This I think is grotesquely unfair, you seem to be continuing the justification of an argument simply because it existed in the first place, and frankly I don't think that's sufficient for debate at all. [applause]

Person 10 : I have absolutely no objection to the further research into the medical use of a specific cannabinoid, which is completely different to smoking cannabis of course. We seem to be in a very strange position here, we've got signs I've got on my ticket that smoking is prohibited here, and yet we… and we have Anita Roddick and on all the Body Shop stuff your cosmetics aren't tested on animals, yet we want many people here to want this drug, which is a very damaging drug, to be decriminalised and available to young people. You're using, in other words, the young people as the animal experiments you'll be using this drug on, and that that is potentially very [one word unclear] indeed. There's a huge amount of evidence that cannabis is harmful. We've got alcohol, we've got drugs. Alcohol can be used legitimately, we don't want more drugs, more harmful effects.[moderate derision] I'm sorry, it's interesting to know when the other speakers…us objecting to some of the things that were said we're very quiet, but when Nigel Evans who I think gave a very fair representation, [laughter] it was fair, very genuine, he was shouted down by a lot of people here in a very rude way. If we're going to have any kind of fair debate today it got to be in a more orderly fashion. People should keep quiet and ask polite questions as opposed to make rowdy comments. [applause ]

Person 11 :What I'm concerned about, of course cannabis should be decriminalised, for the cannabis smoker it already is decriminalised, it's just some of them get caught. What I'm concerned about, which is why I stood for parliament for the last general election, is I'm concerned why are we all going on about medical versus criminal? I believe that everybody who takes cannabis takes it for medical reasons, whether it be for the head or a physical disability. 

What I would like to say is that while we are talking there's a summit going on on the other side of the world about the air we breathe [Kyoto Climate Change summit] they're talking about reducing [one word unintelligible] in god knows how long. The trees in Britain are dying, the children under one years of age can't breathe any more without inhalers. While you're talking about cannabis as a drug, it could be being grown to provide the air for the young children to breathe. [applause]

Jon Snow :At this stage I'll just have to take two more.

Person 12 :Nigel mentioned the Alaskan 'experiment' as he called it, and somehow thought that was relevant. Alaska recriminalised under pressure from the American federal government, not because of increased use. I think the interesting one is the Dutch experiment. After decriminalisation, cannabis consumption actually went down for eight years, and now it's gone up only in line with the countries that have got prohibition like ourselves and the United States. What the Dutch experiment has done is to separate cannabis from the hard drugs. Heroin use and cocaine use have plummeted in Holland, and young people starting, which is the important thing because if you start on heroin young you stay on it, young people starting has plummeted to the rate where the Dutch have now got, per capita, about half the rate of heroin addiction that we have. Decriminalisation separates cannabis from the hard drugs that do the real damage. [applause]

Person 13 : I'd like to say that I'm an RMN [Registered Medical Nurse]. I've been working in addiction for 20 years and I'd like Mr Evans, when he says that when he's visited a psychiatric hospital he's always found people that have taken cannabis to have psychotic problems, I'd like to know whether he's ever bothered to look at the alcoholics that are in the psychiatric units. I'd like to know how many funerals he's attended of alcoholics, I'd like to know how many families he's visited of alcoholics. Alcoholism is tolerated in this nation for the taxation that it produces, no other reason. [applause] It is the most pernicious drug in our society, and if this government wants to go down as a radically reforming, improving society then it has to look at the laws that regulate alcohol, and this business with the coco-pops [she means alcopops] and all the rest of it, the raspberry flavoured alcoholic lemonade that it allows to be produced, and I think that cannabis is a far less dangerous alternative for young people than alcohol abuse. [applause]

Jon Snow : There's still a forest of hands, I promise to come back to more, but we must go to more speakers and then I'll take more debate. [Nigel Evans indicates] Just a reaction then, and please do give him the opportunity of the floor because there's no doubt that there is a slight imbalance in the audience.

Nigel Evans : I'm quite used to that. Is the law working? Well yes and no. No obviously because of Brian's figures, and I can't say with certainty, I suspect Brian, I think you're right, that Home Office figures are well below what the numbers are, but even if to accept your figures, it still leaves a vast proportion are not smoking cannabis whereas the figures for those for tobacco and alcohol are incredibly higher. So I would say let's learn by the alcohol and the tobacco lessons, and as I say this government is trying to [one word unintelligible], and both governments worked hard and very immediately against the alcohol industry when the alcopops came out, because that's the last thing that we wanted was to attract young people into consuming alcohol through things like lemonade and raspberry and all the various other things. 

As far Frank is concerned, it wasn't just all people, Frank, in Alaska, it was young people which was the problem there, that twice the number of young people in Alaska were smoking cannabis as opposed to the rest of the United States. And it was because of the young people themselves, which is why the Alaskans took the particular route that they did. And Holland was mentioned as well, and Holland are now backtracking like crazy and introducing more stringent amounts of cannabis that are to be allowed. 

As far as medical use is [around two words unintelligible], I did actually mention therapeutic use, I believe that research has got to be done into cannabis and those elements within cannabis that do help and alleviate people with all sorts of medical conditions, and it's just got to go through the same tests as every other drug that's available, and I'm all for investing large sums of money into doing that so that it can be brought forward much more quickly than is otherwise the case and treated as a matter of urgency by all means, so that those people who are suffering can get access to those medicines [around five words unintelligible].

Back to the top

Jon Snow : Nigel Evans, I'd like to thank you very warmly for contributing to the debate, thankyou very much indeed. [applause] Now I'm just going to make a public plea to the speakers to leave as much time as is possible for the rest of the people here to join in. But I'm delighted to be able to tell you that Gianfranco Dell Alba, who is an MEP from Italy, has got here now, and there is, as we mentioned, a debate going on on the floor of the European Parliament today. He is a member of the Transnational Radical Party and Secretary General of the International Assembly of Parliamentarians of the Radical Party and he has recently contributed to a revision of the current prohibition system on drugs, he's co-ordinated the International Anti-Prohibition League. Gianfranco Dell Alba, thankyou very much..[applause]

Gianfranco Dell Alba* : It is with great pleasure that I accepted the offer from the Independent on Sunday and the other organisers to come to speak at your debate of 'Cannabis: Should it be decriminalised?'. I would say, and I prefer to say, 'cannabis: should it be legalised?' [applause]. I joined the Independent on Sunday's campaign, and I am extremely glad to see that such a campaign here in Britain has brought so many of you here today. 

I belong to the Transnational Radical Party, who have been committed to the legalisation of drugs worldwide since 1975. We lead our campaign on two levels, both in the institutional national and European parliaments, and on the grassroots organising meetings and peaceful demonstrations, including non-violent infringement of the current law on drugs. On the institutional level we have had considerable success in collecting signatures in the European Parliament to support a report on the harmonisation of drug policy and law within the European Union in an anti-prohibitionist sense. One month ago the Civil Liberty Committee of the European Parliament approved this report which, we hope, will be supported by the plenary of the European Parliament next January. Our aim is to organise a broad support for this kind of action more often in national parliament, and for this reason we are working at the moment on the organisation of a network of national parliamentarians across Europe. 

In Italy, the radical anti-prohibitionist activists have twice gathered 500,000 signatures in order to have a national referendum on drugs. We finally had one in 1993, and 53% of the Italian people voted in favour of decriminalisation of the consumption of cannabis and deregulated[?] freedom in the treatment of drug addiction. That was an important success but not enough. [slight applause] So at the grassroots we organise civil disobedience campaign. After having tried all other legal means to change the drug law and policy, we decided to break the law and accept the consequences [applause] of an illegal act in order to demonstrate how injust and ridiculous in some ways the current laws are, thereby raising political and public attention toward this matter. I recently participated in one of these civil disobediences. In Rome last November, in front of more than 500 people and a lot of policemen, I first handed out some of the most dangerous drugs which kill millions of people every day -cigarettes and whiskey. And nothing happened [around three words unintelligible due to slight laughter in audience, possibly 'while I handed these out']. And then I distributed a small packet of cannabis, it looked like this [applause as he holds up professional looking retail-style packet marked 'cannabis']. Don't worry, it's completely empty. At that time it was full, and for that reason I was arrested, even though I was actually distributing the same quantity of cannabis that is legally allowed for personal consumption in Italy. Marco Pannella our party leader who has participated in many public distributions like this has, as a result, already been condemned to eight months of imprisonment. 

The analysis that we come to on the effects of drug prohibition is very clear: It is the prohibition and not the drug itself that is the main problem [applause]. The prohibition of drugs feeds the Mafia monopoly of drugs production, trafficking and distribution. The immense amount of money that international crime draws is used to corrupt politicians, judges, policemen, the media and so on. The prohibition of drugs causes the marginalisation of drug addicts who are left in the hands of criminality and become themselves, most of the time, [around three words unintelligible]. Legalisation of drugs, starting possibly, of course, with the soft drugs but including all of them, would radically help to cope with the drugs problem. First of all it would be a problem, for me, to rid the drugs market of the Mafia, and being Italian I am particularly sensitive to this problem - solving the relation of micro and macro criminality. Second, the addicts would be treated properly according to their needs, thus important resources and energy would be turned towards actual criminal activities, and not to send to jail thousands and thousands of people simply because they have smoked a joint. The impression that we have is that the public is reporting of a new and a different approach to drugs. The referendums in Italy and in Switzerland are proof of this, and even the Italian court and in the other states I don't remember in the United States. Politicians are also aware of this even if sometimes, and very often, they choose to ignore it. For example The Netherlands, the current law being discussed in the European Belgium and Luxembourg parliaments, the vote in the European Parliament are clear signs, in my view, of this evolution. And in that respect, and if I may say so, I think that your very important campaign should be called 'legalise cannabis' [applause] instead of 'decriminalise cannabis' because decriminalisation, even if it is a very important step, is maybe not strong enough to break the market of the illegal drugs and bring to an end a new effective anti-prohibitionist policy and law. 

This afternoon in Brussels, and for that reason I was a little bit late, I have to leave before the end of this meeting, our party and the association that we organise for the anti-prohibitionist campaign are organising another meeting like this to discuss with some members of different governments, the Greek government, the Italian government, the European Commissioner Emma Bonino, and other MPs and MEPs on this issue with the aim to organise an international campaign of legalisation [slight applause]. And if people join our efforts and give the hope to all those who want to face the drugs issue in a responsible way and start together an international campaign, I believe firmly that very soon it will be possible to obtain very practical and concrete results. Thankyou very much. [applause]

Jon Snow : Gianfranco has to go, and in fact we're very short of time, but if there's a specific question to him let's take it now, otherwise I'm going to move straight on.

Person 14 : Do you think it's possible for us to get legalisation domestically with the problems of the united Europe coming up? Is that not the reason why Holland is having problems at the moment, because of the European policy-making?

Gianfranco Dell Alba* : Holland has not legalised, Holland has decriminalised cannabis and other products like that. The problem is that, for that reason, we want and we need an international campaign. There is the UN convention that obliges all the member states to do the same, to have the same law, and so for that reason it's very important to have national initiatives like this, and national campaigns, but in order to change the law, in my view we need really at least [around three words unintelligible] and European initiative.

Person 15 : I'm from the Bush Telegraph, we firmly believe in the legalisation, rather than the decriminalisation, of all drugs. I'm glad you brought up the UN convention, a lot of people bring up the UN convention, stating that it obliges us to criminalise cannabis and other drugs. As far as I am aware, several additions were issued to that UN convention stressing that the use of cannabis would be better off being considered a social and a health issue rather than a criminal one. And I ask people like Nigel whether they really believe that

Jon Snow [interrupting] : I really want you to talk to Gianfranco to be honest, that's what the specific part of this section is. Any question regarding European policy.

Person 15 : Well I believe that under the UN convention we should be able to alter the penalties imposed within the member states of Europe. If you look at Germany they are decriminalising, if you look at Norway there is decriminalisation there, there is a certain decriminalisation in Spain, this is all going on and yet people are still pressurising Holland saying that 'oh, we won't have it here'. Why is that? Why is Holland always held up when all the states around it who are pressurising it to reduce its use of cannabis are also decriminalising?

Gianfranco Dell Alba* : Personally I think that the most important thing is to come to the next step of the UN convention. There is an important meeting in June 1998, next year, to ask the point and to check the result and the effect of the UN convention. If in a number of member states of Europe at least the decriminalisation of individual consumption, could be the majority of states that did this policy, that means the failure of the system that in principle was to avoid any use of drugs, and could give a front to go in June in Vienna with another proposal maybe to check, to amend, this current UN convention this is really the problem, because 30 years of UN convention has had terrible results in my view in the Dutch policy.

Jon Snow : Two quick questions, then, to Gianfranco.

Person 16* : I just want to know what type of politicians we have in European committee? That's one, and second, I am Dutch, I have heard several times the Netherlands here, and I can say that in the Netherlands the rate of cannabis and the criminality is raising high, very high. Young people say if the Dutch don't do anything quick, we lost a whole group of my age. And I think that is very, very serious…

Person 17* [interrupting] : This is a lie, this is a really terrible lie.

Person 16* :[shouting] I am on the road here. [not shouting] Please, I am sick of it all the time, people who are not in favour to get up…

Jon Snow [to Person 17] : I'll come to you in a minute, it's extremely useful to have somebody from Holland, so…

Person 17* : I'm from Holland too.

Jon Snow : Yeah, [laughter and applause] I'll take you in a minute.

Person 16* : So you see, even in the Netherlands you have different points of view as you have here[slight laughter]. But the criminality is raising and kids who are using cannabis or other drugs are now eight, ten years old. I think that's bad and once again…

Jon Snow : Just a second cos I'm going to go to him in a moment, what figures are you basing your assertion on?

Person 16* : Well actually I have no own figures [slight laughter]. What I know is that I can see what's happened around me. And on the third, we have international figures, and why did Holland not participate in the last EU survey, that's very strange. Only that says a lot because they can't come out with the official figures, they always come out with the fake figures. 

And the other thing, we have to, do you know that your country, the English, and my country they are responsible for the UN conventions, because your country and my country they got rich on the trade and the business of legal opium. And what we are trying to do now is the same only for other drugs, and I think it's, and I speak now as a parent and as a representative for concerned citizens, we don't like this, we don't want to have the acceptation of drugs. We don't speak about decriminalisation or legalisation, we speak about 'not accept it'. [slight applause]

Jon Snow : Thankyou very much. What about just addressing the specific thing that our speaker there said, which is that Holland did not participate in the latest EU survey in drug [one word unintelligible]. 

Person 17* : Well that is crazy, you know. From Lisbon, you know, the centre there, I don't have correct name, there is this European centre to get all these statistics in Lisbon, and they have the statistics that show that Holland is one of the most favourable countries around here with regard to hard drug problems and also with regard to cannabis. Your own statistics here in England show that use among children is higher than in the Netherlands. Now there is much more to say on this if you have the statistic of lifetime use, what is interesting about that is that most of these people do not go on smoking. What we would have to consider is the percentage of lifetime users that gets into problems, and this percentage is very small with cannabis. The number of regular users in Holland is not higher than in countries with much more repression, that is the lesson to learn from more than 20 years now of the Dutch softer policy. That we went back on it is really only because of the pressure from the rest of Europe, mainly from France, and most other countries, but this has been mitigated a lot last time, and so I think that the main lesson from the Dutch experience is that less repression works better than more repression [applause].

Jon Snow :I'm extremely grateful for both those perspectives because both are rooted in a very serious sense of commitment from both those speakers, and I'm particularly grateful to Gianfranco Dell Alba who generated this very important element of the debate. Thankyou very much indeed.[applause] 

Back to the top

Can we move on to two speakers next before we then revert to a little more debate. I'm going to ask now, please, Mike Goodman, Director of Release. Thirty years old now, Release, as a UK civil rights/welfare organisation for drug users. Mike Goodman has been director since 1991. He was previously leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council. He's a qualified barrister and he has considerable experience in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. Mike Goodman, thankyou very much .[applause]

Mike Goodman : Thankyou very much. Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. Thirty years ago on July 16th 1967 the founders of Release distributed the Release rights on arrest card, at the very first legalise pot rally at Hyde Park organised in protest at a law that was to be described in the famous Times advertisement a week later as 'wrong in principle and unworkable in practice'. 

But while the civil rights movement of the day were breaking down the restrictive and repressive laws around abortion, gambling, obscenity, suicide and many other areas of individual lifestyle and personal choice, the users of cannabis remained demonised and prosecuted with the full force of the law through the servants of the criminal justice system ready to make examples of the deviants of the day. So who was this enemy within which so threatened the establishment? That had judges, MPs and the Daily Mail baying for blood? 

Well, exclusively for Crimewatch viewers today, I am able to reveal a specially constructed photofit picture of the ringleader. This is the face of public enemy number one [Shows picture of young 1960's woman smoking] Remember that face? Were you with that person at the Isle of Wight or Glastonbury? Take a look at that guitar. Could you have heard an old Joan Baez or Doobie Brothers number on it? And what about that joint? Awesome, isn't it? Well if that picture was in any way representative then, which I doubt, it soon changed. What began as an alternative was soon mainstream, bigtime. In 1967 there were 2,393 cannabis related convictions, barely 50 a week. Now there are almost 1,500 a week. In the 30 years since 1967, 650,000 people have been criminalised, convicted or cautioned and virtually every year the number has increased. In fact at current rates, by the year 2000 in this country a million mostly young people will have been dealt by the police and courts for cannabis related offences. Now these figures show that present policies, prohibition, don't work. As do the figures on personal use. 37% of 15 and 16 year olds have tried cannabis, 21% of 16-59 year olds in this country have tried cannabis. Not a piece of legislation which appears to command enormous public respect. But lack of respect is only one reason to change or abolish a law and not the most important. A law needs changing most of all, not because it doesn't work, but because it is bad. 

So why is this law bad? This issue goes to the heart of those ideas which have shaped our society. Big ideas. Ideas which have influenced the social and political development and the government of people in the modern world. These are the ideas and principles around freedom, justice, toleration, and rationality. They have influenced how we see the world and how we have made the world around us. One such principle is that of individual liberty, it was articulated by the great liberal philosopher J S Mill and many other individuals, including the authors of the American Declaration of Independence, through to that great liberal Sir Isiah Berlin. And what it says is simply this, and I paraphrase - people should have the right to make decisions over their own lives providing they do not [break in tape for no more than 10 seconds] 

'The only purpose for which any power may be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant, he cannot rightfully be compelled or forbear because it will make him happier, because in the opinion of others to do so would be wise or right' J S Mill 'On Liberty', 1857 [Quote on overhead projector]

..development of liberal democratic society over the past 200 years. [around three words unintelligible] It contributed to the American Declaration of Independence. Remember these words: We the people of the United States of America hold these truths to be self evident, that free men have the inalienable right to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' The pursuit of happiness. That's what liberty is about. So that is one of the tests of a good society and good laws. Rationality and justice are other ones as well. Does the law make sense? Is it logical? Or does it defy common sense? 

We could introduce a law tomorrow to outlaw the driving of any car that is green, it can go through both Houses of Parliament, get the Royal Assent and be perfectly valid, but it would be irrational, it would be a bad law. Laws require a degree of logic or consistency or they bring themselves and the system into disrepute. The law on cannabis has no such logic or consistency because it seeks to outlaw an activity which is infinitely safer that a vast array of other comparable activities which are perfectly legal. And I'll give you some examples. But first let me make it plain that no-one on this side of the debate claims that cannabis is completely risk free. Of course it's not. And why should it be? The question is whether it is harmful enough to justify the intrusion of the law into peoples personal lives on the dubious grounds of protecting people from themselves. All we can do is to look at how we live with risks in our everyday lives and try and draw some sensible and rational conclusions. 

Here are some figures from one area of recreational activity. Death by drowning during sporting activities in the UK in 1967[he means 1987 according to his overhead projection] Nothing particular about 1967[87] it was just where the figures were available. Incidentally over a thousand people a year die from drowning, this is just in relation to sporting activities. Over sixty people died in that way in that year. Eleven from fishing. Twenty eight from competitive swimming. One from horse riding. Drowning from horse riding! That takes water polo into a new area, doesn't it. And what about other areas as well, during a seven year period 87 people died in motor sports, 46 in ball games, 31 in horse riding, 412 from water sports. Between 1963 and 1983, 98 people died playing association football. We live with risks every day of our lives through the known [around two words unintelligible] of drugs, reactions to vaccines, allergies to household substances, the list goes on and on.

And yes, cannabis has risks too. Though you can't overdose. Though the only recorded fatalities are extremely dubious and are so-called cannabis related. Though nobody really knows whether cannabis psychosis is just psychosis with cannabis an irritant to the already disturbed. Yet it's safe enough for the Lancet to say this ['The smoking of cannabis, even long term, is not harmful to health' on the overhead projector] and the British Medical Journal to say much the same, because compared to most so-called healthy lifestyle recreational activities, smoking cannabis is the equivalent of being wrapped up in cotton wool. That is the fact of the matter. 

The truth is that the law against cannabis is an affront to civil and human rights of our citizens [sustained applause] It is contrary to our values of freedom and rationality it is a bad law and has to change. The real challenge now is how. And I would like to briefly attempt to illustrate how this could work in practice. 

The first model, which we have at the moment, is prohibition. And all that goes with that. But there are three other models. Quasi-prohibition or depenalisation - the system of cautioning that we have in some areas around the country. Within the UN conventions and many other European countries people can be sent for treatment, supposedly, instead of being sent to court. Various non-enforcement measures. But then we get on to the meat of the issue. Decriminalisation. You don't have to, in fact, reform the international prohibitions in relation to cannabis to have various models in respect of decriminalisation. We can do it at the moment as they've done in Holland, highly successfully in Holland. And also in eleven American states. Not just one, Alaska, in eleven, and in the other ten use never went up apart from what was commonly happening in the rest of the United States. In Alaska it did go up. Well I don't know, Nigel, if you know anything about Alaska [applause and laughter]. I have to say that if I was living in Alaska I'd be on it intravenously [laughter and applause] It is fit to say that decriminalisation is a halfway house but is implementable and it can be done now. But the ultimate model that we are really looking for is indeed legalisation [applause] Or what I would describe in fact, more better, is licensing. It's a more elegant solution, properly controlled, with quality control, with consumer protection. I can just see now, when they advertise that job for the quality control OFPOT, I can see the queues outside the office. 

But it would be controlled, it would also be the biggest single blow to the Mafia, the Colombian Cartels and organised crime [applause] and it would work. It would work perfectly well as it works in Holland. We believe that we need to establish a Royal Commission to set the process going for a step by step process of reform. We should be doing that now. We know that the 650,000 people, the innocents, have been brutalised by a law. And those thousands yet to join them. The law is abhorrent, it's outrageous, it's morally repugnant, it must change. Thankyou [applause]

Back to the top

Jon Snow :Thankyou Mike, very much. And if OFPOT doesn't make it into the media I don't think anything will [laughter]. We move straight on to a very different perspective from Peter Stoker. Now Peter Stoker is the Director of the National Drug Prevention Alliance, he's been a drug worker for twelve years dealing face to face with drug users, drinkers and their families. He's co-founder of the MPDA forming a group of professionals and lay members within the community dealing with drug-related problems and issues. Peter Stoker [applause].

Peter Stoker : Can you hear me at the back? Will you hear me at the back? Go on, give it a try. It's nice to be hear at this religious revival this morning, apparently a stoned throw from Westminster, although how you're going to manage that when this is a non-smoking environment I don't know. Ten minutes at this rostrum isn't going to create much of a dent in those of you who've come here, at the very least, reading through several weeks of the Sunday Independent. And incidentally the police have now got a new rock solid roadside test for drug driving - if they look in the back window and see a Sunday Independent on the seat, you're busted [slight laughter]. 

Although the government's explicit statement on cannabis certainly seems to have got up Rosie Boycott's nose, Labour and the Oppositions continue to support the national strategy which has got the kind of aims that I've tried to compress here. In the particular case of cannabis they say no legalisation, no decriminalisation, and as you've heard from some of the other speakers here who've also met George Howarth, no debate. They say no debate, well I'm going to tell you why they say it, they say it because it's all been heard before many times, because the facts don't support the rhetoric, and because the experience defeats the hypothesis. [turns to overhead projections] That's in the wrong place…they're after me, they're after me. Just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they're not out to get you…[various different projections searched through] back, back, back one, back one….forget it. This subject is a lot more complex than the people behind the screens can cope with. The list that you saw briefly flashing across the screen there with the chap in the middle and lots of things like 'legal, social, ethical issues' isn't exhaustive, but it does show you some of the areas you need to address. As John Strang said earlier, you can't really deal with this with a simple yes-no situation. You've got to, in the face of all that complexity, ask some very basic questions: Would decriminalisation increase use? Would it increase use by youth? Would it increase problems generally? What evidence is there for it? Which is another thing that John has said, John Strang, and what experience is there of it elsewhere? 

Now before we get too deeply into that I'd like to make a passing reference to the suggested medical usage. It's been dealt with at some length earlier. Frankly I think that if people will want to progress that, and if progressing it in due course produces safe, properly tested and effective medicine, I'm for it. But to mix that in with the dialogue about legalising what you might like to call recreational use, I don't think it's doing either group any service, I think it's doing the medical group a lot less service. You need to get these things apart and look at them on their own merits [slight applause]. But it's something that has been conveniently mingled for a long time, the pot lobby through NORML [National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws] in America, of which Miss Zimmer here, who I see is listed on my sheet as impartial, has been a recent board member, always mix the two up.

Let me give you a couple of quick quotes, these are their words not mine. Back in the late 70s they said 'we will use the medical marijuana argument as a red herring to give pot a good name', that was what was happening then and unfortunately with some people, not all of you here, it's what's happening now. More recently Rich Gowan [?], at the time that he made this quote was a director of NORML, said 'once we can get large numbers of people using this stuff for medicine it will be then,' and I quote him, 'that the whole scam is going to be bought'. Well I get a little bit angry about scams, I don't care whether it's me as an environmental campaigner, which I was, or a trade unionist, I don't like people sticking it to me. So let's at least have people who've got the guts to come out and argue the arguments straight. In fact, as has been hinted earlier, the [one or two words unintelligible] licensing of extract of cannabis for therapeutic use can happen when it's got to that stage of acceptability, but that doesn't have to have any relevance to legalising or decriminalising the substance for use on the street. Even the BMA said so in its latest report, I recommend that you go and get one. 

So if we look at non-medical use, as Mike Goodman has said, where's the harm in it? Well there is a bit he's said, none at all some others say, and it never killed anybody did it. But what you're observing here, I ask you to look at this, is a compressing of the criteria. And then there's a spotlight on the one that's most favourable to your argument, ie only talk about physical health and then only talk about the ultimate physical harm, which is death. And never go out and study what's happening to the people around the users. And the drug agencies I've worked in are a little bit unusual in that they do work with people around the users, and we've seen a lot of wreckage there, quite often in excess of the wretchedness of the person who's using. They're happy, they've got their stuff, they're using, they're not aware of the damage they're causing.

I want to try risking pressing this thing again [the overhead projector]. No, I'm going to press it again, oh look, there it is, that's the one we missed. Right, this isn't my definition of health, this has been around for hundreds of years. You can find it in Buddhist, Christian, Hebrew writings, you can find it even in modern day religions like the World Health Organisation, but the essence of it is that these are the headings under which you need to look at health, and you need to look at the health impacts of any behaviour whether it's got to do with drugs or not. And certainly the people that I found presented to me as clients in the agencies I've worked in, very few of them present with physical symptoms, they mainly present with symptoms in these other areas and David Partington who's coming on later will tell you about that, and also the extent to which the user doesn't only jeopardise themselves but other people. 

As for 'nobody ever died from cannabis', people do die from it at least in the same way that people do from alcohol in cars or trucks or trains or whatever [slight groans] Well here's one little thought for you: Given the evidence that there's an impact on flying skills even up to 48 hours after smoking one fairly boringly strength joint, and this could be worse with the use of stronger types, I just wonder how high Mr Branson would like his pilots to be [slight murmuring and laughter, one person says 'show us the evidence please']. If the BMA ever gets beyond its flirtation with cannabis and starts to seriously measure the smoking related illnesses from cannabis, then I think you're going to get a very different picture. 

Now, none of our opponents have suggested that under 18s would have free access to cannabis, and yet the age of onset of use is way way below that as you all know. And probably half the market or more comes from people under 18, so you're therefore you're still going to have an enormous black market, and if over 18s were to be supplied by some non-criminal or non-criminalised market system, the criminal system would therefore be concentrated much more on the people outside that boundary. As far as I'm concerned, the whole argument can be summed up in two words: success and failure. Success in the area where I spend most of my time, which is not in this kind of [one word unclear] talking about promoting health, promoting, if you like, my life liberty and pursuit of happiness, and that includes people living life to the full. [operates projector] Now let's see where they're taking me this time.[Someone says 'Freedom of choice, what about them?', Peter Stoker indicates projector still going through different frames not finding the right one] Well it's somebody's freedom of choice working here. [Someone says 'Just good taste'. Slight laughter]. Funny how it's only my slides that don't work. Right, here we go. [still not showing the right slide] This graph that you can't see up here… You can see it? Must be good stuff.

Simply stating drug use history over the last 50 years, you'll find that it cut back rapidly over a 12 year period. Now that was from 80 to 92, now that period was when quality prevention was working and when the community at large woke up. I'm afraid that what we've got in Britain at the moment… [distracted by slide coming up]. What I think happened with people is a matter of historical record, they went through apathy, then a wake-up period, then getting involved in some decent health promotion the like of which we don't see very much in this country. And if you were to transpose that to Britain now, I think, not in this room obviously but in the public at large, we're in a period of apathy, and I just hope we're going to move on to a period of wake-up. And I'll take my chances in debates with the community at large when that wake-up occurs.

Wherever simply law relaxation has been tried, with whatever substance, it has produced worse conditions. I'll have to compress this because the light is on, if you see me afterwards I'll give you all the facts. [someone says 'give them now'] I've got to get off, they won't let me on. But as far as I'm concerned if you think that the only way to beat crime is to legalise it then perhaps you do need medical treatment[around five words unintelligible]. [applause]

Jon Snow : Thankyou very much Peter. Two very interesting and thought provoking offerings there from different quarters. I'm begged to take questions from this quarter. Somebody came and flashed a pad in front of me saying he would speak, but I then see no hand up. However, fire away, do you have something to address to what we've just heard?

Person 18* : My name is Carl and I found [around two words unclear] the amount of issues. Anyway I work with ACT which is an MS and other life threatening illnesses. I personally ran a survey for Disability Now which is a magazine, I just offered to help out, and in one hour there was just in Westminster [?] Hospital I managed to collect over two hundred forms from people not just in favour, the people ill, that they sign the petition and they clearly stated that their life depended on the use of cannabis. I'd also like to bring the attention back to the medical use [around one word unintelligible] again. We want to separate cannabis from the rest of the drugs, we want cannabis on Schedule II so it can be used without being labelled as criminal. We forgot already what the intention was, which was pointed out by someone else before. And the knowledge of Nigel Evans is absolute zero, he doesn't know, he doesn't even know it exists, he doesn't know anything about anything at all. [slight applause]

Jon Snow :Well thankyou very much. Now there's a question that I've been handed on the piece of paper here, maybe there's somebody in the hall who can answer this. Why did cannabis come to be criminalised in the first place?

Mike Goodman : Well I think part of the answer is 'how long have we got here?', but in a nutshell when the first international prohibitions were being discussed in the Hague convention, followed by, I think, the Geneva convention it was raised by the Egyptian delegate that there was an awful lot of people in Egypt who were suffering from cannabis psychosis and that this was sufficient evidence for it to be agreed internationally to join the list of banned substances without any further evidence, without there being any use going on in any of the other countries. Most of this evidence has now been discredited, it was actually put forward by a British doctor who was working in Egypt. Incidentally it was then, though it could be made available legally in this country up until the 1960s, it could be prescribed by doctors, there was very little problems associated with it but the driving force of the bigotry has always been the United States. And in the United States just shortly after the war there was a number of vested interests including the people who were particularly involved in producing synthetic products and wished to drive out the product of hemp from society [applause] thus the various demonisation films and 'reefer madness' and other things that went on of the day. So that's it, that's a potted history.

Person 19 :I work as a consultant for a company called Hemp Seed Organics and we work very closely with a fellow called Free Rob Cannabis, I'd like to call him, could you pass the microphone to him?

Jon Snow : You're now ceding your question to somebody else. Yes I see, right. Fire away. Well that's a clever way of getting the floor.

Person 20 [Free Rob Cannabis] :Right, I think the real question we should be asking is how we should decriminalise cannabis, as it's quite obvious the government refuse to. Why? Because in my opinion the government are acting illegally cos they are continuing to impose laws which are a basic contravention of human rights. Not only that, they are pushing drugs which are killing people [applause]. This is because they're more concerned about protecting the vested interests of large pharmaceutical companies than the health and welfare of their own people. We talked a lot about the medicine and how can we decriminalise it. The thing is, it's for us to do it. I run an organisation called the Free Medical Marijuana Foundation which has been supplying free cannabis to people since May '97. The police are fully aware of our activities and they have said that it's not within the public interest to stop us. Thing is, to make cannabis legal again we've got to make it happen, refuse to co-operate with the system, the system only works by controlling people through fear. Fear of arrest, fear of going to court, and ultimately fear of prison. I've got no fear of Babylon, and that's why next year I'm being sent to prison for one and a half grams of cannabis. And incidentally, to turn the situation in my favour, I'm going to be running a sponsorship campaign, people can sponsor me for each day I spend in prison, and all that money will go to buy free cannabis which'll be supplied to people who need it.[sustained applause and cheering]

Person 21 : My interest in this is that my son was sent to prison for a year for giving some of his university friends a couple of ounces of cannabis. I'm therefore violently against the criminalisation. But I've recently been in touch with the UN PCP in Vienna and also the World Health Organisation in Geneva. It's the 1966 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that obliges all countries signatory to the convention to make it criminal. Article 4 of that convention does not say how it should be criminalised, nor does it impose on countries any rules as to what laws they should pass to make it so. My question to the Sunday Independent is what exactly do you mean by 'decriminalisation'? I just want an extremely precise answer because it is surrounded with poo-traps[?] into which this campaign will fall unless that question is answered, and nobody has answered it [slight applause] . It's not sufficient to say that we should just rely on courts to do this, it may be alright in upmarket London for magistrates to know what they should do, but by god, if you go down to Bridgwater they'll bung them all in jail.

Rosie Boycott : Well we would look to a model that is followed in Holland where cannabis is available through government legal outlets and stores, and where minor possession is not classed as a criminal offence. There is obviously a further stage, in fact, which is full legalisation, but that is very much a government issue because then you start to say who gets the license on this stuff, is it British American Tobacco, are we giving it to Distillers? You start to talk about big quantities of money. The stages towards this are incremental, and as has been pointed out by the other speakers, there are very easy incremental stages that can be done which will bring compassion into this issue, allow debate, and stop people being victimised for something that is a human right that they should do and is not harming them. And I'm very sorry about your son. [slight applause]

Person 22 : Shane Collins from the Green Party Drugs Group. I just want to pick up on a point that Peter Stoker made at the end about crime. At the moment the drugs trade is generally reckoned to be about the second or third biggest trade in the world, after arms and a few other dodgy things. Interpol estimate it's about a billion dollars a day going into this. So what are we going to do with this? I think one of the problems with decriminalisation is that it makes it OK for you to have personal possession, but it still criminalises the trade, OK, so we've got the second or third biggest trade in the world that we are still forcing, essentially, on to a criminal market. Now this is plainly potty, let's try and do something about this. 

One of the other big problems of criminalisation is that there's no quality control. I suspect most of us have probably smoked pesticides and plastic, if you smoke hash, that's generally a by-product, which is a big problem. And ecstasy is the other thing, I just want to put a little ad. There's been so much concern at the moment over the dangers of drugs, but ecstasy in particular, that we think it's about time that it's tested. It's fairly simple to test ecstasy and we're going to be doing it on Saturday, if people are interested come and have a chat.

Jon Snow : Let's try to stick to the cannabis issue at the moment. Two more points.

Person 23 : I'd like to make one point to Peter Stoker who mentioned that it impaired flying ability. In a book The Benefits of Marijuana, scientific studies showed that it actually doesn't touch the central nervous system so therefore it cannot impair driving or flying abilities [slight applause].

Person 24 : I think it's very interesting actually that this whole discussion, this whole debate here, is really missing the big issue, and that is that hemp as a plant is the single most important plant on this planet [applause]. The Kyoto summit [about global climate change] is now debating on the emissions, lowering the emissions, carbon emissions of the planet. Now, the growing of hemp throughout the planet will reduce [the effects of] these carbon emissions in itself. It's the single most important food on the planet [one word unclear] protein, we can make clothes from it, all of these thing that over the past, what, 50 years, all this information has actually been suppressed. The establishment have actually suppressed the information. We no longer understand what an important, what a valuable actual product it is to us, and I think it's down to us all to actually make a difference now. It's not just for getting high, we all get high anyway, it doesn't make any difference to us. But the fact that can make a difference - it can provide us with a clean reusable form of energy to begin with, we can power our transportation on this, we can generate electricity using a biomass fuel which actually comes from this product. I can't believe that this issue is…I mean it's a moot point the decriminalisation, but just for people getting high it doesn't have any relevance.

Jon Snow :Well let me pick you up on that specific point then [applause]. Anita Roddick.

Anita Roddick : For the past two years we've been developing a range of products from hemp, from hemp seed oil, and it has been the most interesting passageway. First of all to support hemp growers around the world, but, two, to demystify it all again, three, to talk about some of the extraordinary uses of it as you well know. The sadness is, again, the public policy on this. We can only get our hemp seed oil from China, we cannot get it from anywhere else still at this moment, even though the European Union are giving some funds to that, it is still a dilemma.

Jon Snow : A man shaking his head offering a source.

Person 25 : It's OK, I'm going to let her finish, I'll speak in my time.

Anita Roddick : What I want to make a point as, is that what we have to do as a company, and I think as a concerned citizen, especially environmentally sensitively, is to support hemp growers and to support hemp farming, organic hemp farming [applause].

Person 25 : Could I just say that ever since 1992/93 when the Tory government allowed the reintroduction, easing restrictions on hemp cultivation. Since before that time, and since that time, Richard Branson and Anita Roddick and Felix Dennis [?] and many others who've signed the Independent on Sunday letters, and indeed George Soros, they refuse to almost do anything practical, tangible, now, in the last few years, to actually show the people of this country and the world that they are doing something more than just saying 'yes yes hemp is good'. This whole thing needs a few more leaders for hemp, really for the city type people in industry and economics. People like Richard and Anita Roddick should be leaders rather than followers and this is a great cause which you're supporting, but really you could do an awful lot more very very quickly [applause].

Jon Snow : I've rarely attended a conference where there are so many hands persistently up, and I'm sorry but we have got to move on. I'm just going to get a quick reaction from Peter first and then from Mike. Peter.

Peter Stoker : I think that the remarks about hemp, again this is something that can be considered another time, but can be considered quite separately from the main body of what we're looking at here. But if you want a reaction to it, I can't do any better than quote Mark Climan [?] who is one of your own gurus for the legalisation movement in the States, and he gives evidence at Congressional level. When Mark was asked about this in one of the major national newspapers, what about hemp and the environment and all this stuff, the reporter said Climan paused, shifted a little and said 'most of us guys tend to keep away from that. Frankly, this whole environmental hemp thing is total horseshit'.

Mike Goodman : I'd just like to make a few points. The first thing is I should've said at the beginning that I'd actually like to pay tribute to the founders of Release, including Caroline Coon who's with us here today [applause]. On the issue of schoolchildren's use of drugs, the report that we're all talking about is the annual report on the state of the drugs problem in the European Union 1997. It demonstrates that there's a number of countries where the number of schoolchildren are more likely to be using cannabis and various other drugs than in Holland, and that includes the countries of Ireland and the United Kingdom. 

On the issue of testing - in my view testing is the new witch-hunt of the day, it is an appalling thing that is happening with people being tested for drugs. What we should be doing is testing for impairment of people's ability to do their jobs, not testing for the drugs which [around three words unintelligible due to applause]. 

Finally [around five words unintelligible] come to, two points. First of all in relation to John Strang. It's not really good form to criticise another speaker but I want to say this - For thirty years we've been waiting for research, everyone is talking about research, the National Addiction Centre has had thirty years to do research, it's had more than that. What's always holding up the debate, waiting for Godot, waiting for research, it's time to change now and you can research at the same time [brief applause]. 

Finally, just coming back to a point raised by Nigel Evans about alcohol. There is this thing that is commonly put forward - 'If we knew then what we know now about the dangers of alcohol we never would have allowed it'. It's not true. It's rubbish. Alcohol's OK. It's OK for people to have it. It's got enormous problems attached to it, but people should have the right to have certain pleasures, and I bet Nigel Evans and the rest of the House of Commons would all vote for it, and they'd be right to. [applause]

Back to the top

Jon Snow : [around three words unclear] the hands that are up now in the final debate, but I'm afraid we must move on. We've got three speakers and we've only got 44 minutes left. So I'd like very much now to call on Professor Colin Blakemore. He took up the Chair of Physiology at the University of Oxford in 79, he's also director of the Oxford Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, he's president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he's also written widely on the brain, the nature of images and the philosophy of the mind in books such as Mechanics Of The Mind. I've encountered him even in connection with BSE [Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or mad cow disease], in which he is an extremely informed operative. So, Colin Blakemore, thankyou very much. [applause]

Colin Blakemore : I'll make my general position clear. I think the rise in the use of drugs is one of the most pervasive and socially damaging changes that I have seen in my lifetime in this country and elsewhere in the West. It has destroyed the lives of many people, stimulated drug-related crime, fuelled the drug pushing industry and deeply damaged families and society. I refer, of course, mainly to hard drugs, to addictive substances including heroin and cocaine. But I believe that even cannabis can be damaging, especially to the very young who are vulnerable, subject to peer pressure, passing through the most formative stages in their lives. I know from experience in my own family and through friends of my children that cannabis can be destructive and can ruin lives. All this is true despite the draconian measures to control drug supply and drug use and to persecute drug users that are, at present state, the law in this country and in most countries of the West. All of this is true despite the massive efforts and resources of police and customs officials. If one is concerned, as I am, about the insidious effects and the damaging effects of drugs on society it is clear that the present situation is not working. I'm in favour of decriminalising the use of cannabis for the following reasons.

The first instance, human nature. We live with and by means of motivation, satiation and the search for pleasure. Life itself is a pattern of dependence, and even addiction, linked by common brain mechanisms. I'm referring of course to such legal pursuits as eating, drinking and sex, as well as others, which are in some places illegal such as gambling and the taking of drugs. Drug use dates back to the very beginnings of recorded history. There is every reason to believe that human beings have sought and used drugs ever since there were human beings.

I quote from a paper published in 1873 about the use of opium in this country which shows attitudes to particular drugs can change. 'The genuine opium tea [?] districts are the [around one word unintelligible] fen districts of Norfolk and Lincolnshire. There is not casual accidental or rare, but popular habitual and common. Anyone who visits such a town as Louth or Wisbech, and strolls around the streets on a Saturday evening watching country people as they do their marketing, may soon satisfy himself that the crowds in the chemists shops come for opium. And they have a peculiar way of getting it. They go in, lay down their money, receive the opium pills in exchange without saying a word. For instance, I was at Wisbech one evening in August 1871, went into a chemist shop laid a penny on the counter, the chemist said "The best?", I nodded, he gave me a pill box and took the penny. And so the purchase was completed without my having uttered a syllable. In these districts it is taken by people of all classes, especially by the poor and miserable, by those who in other districts would seek comfort in gin or beer. There are none of the deeds of brutal violence that are inspired by beer, and none of the foul language. Where others say "damn" they say "bless".' [applause]

As it happens, right now our society accepts three forms of addiction. Tobacco smoking, the now acknowledged major cause of a whole range of damaging and lethal clinical conditions, which is powered and fuelled by the most addictive substance, weight for weight, that we know of - nicotine. Alcohol - there are estimated to be 350,000 of the population of this country who are clinically suffering as a result of alcohol intake. It's clearly related in many cases to violence, to family break up and to unemployment. And the other form of addiction which is legal and accepted, of course, is gambling. 

Most certainly cannabis, by any published records, is less harmful than any of these. The present evidence is that cannabis contains remarkably safe drugs with a side effect profile superior to many commercially used drugs, I'm quoting there from the recent BMA report. It is, I think, necessary though to recognise that there are people in society who have what's been called an addictive personality, who, when given exposure to either alcohol, or gambling, or sex, or pornography, or cannabis or whatever, may go to extremes. It's important we recognise those individuals and help them. They are not helped by arresting the vast majority who don't suffer from those problems. Despite huge research effort in the 1960's and 70's, sponsored largely by the US government in an effort to prove the damaging effects of cannabis, there is little, if any, evidence of harm to the brain, the circulation, the immune system or to fertility. The possible effects on the lungs are currently unproven and probably, taken in the quantities that cannabis is taken by most casual users, are unlikely to be damaging. There are a very few reported cases of precipitation of psychotic conditions with excessive intake of cannabis. It is currently estimated, and it's very hard to get firm facts on this because it is such a safe drug, that the lethal level of cannabis is approximately 40,000 times the average dose that's taken for a 'high'. Just imagine that. There has been no recorded death from cannabis, that's cannabis intake. There are modest effects on reaction times, on concentration and on memory. It probably is not a good thing to smoke a joint before driving a car, but what sensible person would? 

The second general basis for my belief that cannabis should be legalised concerns its medical application. But I don't want to make the major play of this. I accept the argument would be wrong to make a broader case for the legalisation of cannabis on the back of possible therapeutic value to some individuals. It's been used medically since the middle of the nineteenth century. The recent excellent review by the BMA concluded that cannabinoids have therapeutic potential in a number of medical conditions in which present drugs or other treatments are not fully adequate. That is a different issue for me from the general one of social use of cannabis, for which I will argue for decriminalisation. 

Another strong argument is the failure of present methods which are directed at preventing the supply and the use of this drug, or indeed of other drugs. The criminalisation and the attempt at control and prohibition of drugs have never been fully effective. And what's more, when the law has been changed, as for instance when the prohibition rules were repealed in the United States, the use of the drug, in that case of course alcohol, did not increase rapidly to alarming proportions. In fact there was only a very modest rise in alcohol use after the repeal of prohibition.

The final general argument for decriminalisation is the one that's already been rehearsed well, and that is the issue of personal freedom and responsibility. There are estimated to be 250 million cannabis users in the world. By the early 1970's 24 million Americans admitted that they had tried the drug, that's more than ten percent of the population. By 1997 half of the US population between 18 and 25 said that they had used cannabis. One has to ask what fraction of the population has to commit a crime for it not to be a crime. In this country it's estimated to be, well you've heard the estimates today, but about 4 million people have used cannabis, and probably 2 million use it fairly regularly. A recent survey has shown that the majority of users are in their late teens and early twenties and are not the image of social outcasts with ruined lives, but they respect their parents and their family, they have motivations for the future, and they control their drug intake and mix it sensibly with the rest of their lives, as do most alcohol users. So surely the principle of the law should be that individuals should be allowed to do anything that does not generate a burden on society or harm others. 

I would have talked about the drug experience which I think is very largely positive, particularly the evidence of [break in tape of around 8 seconds] 22% of cannabis users in Holland have used cocaine but only 2% use cocaine regularly. But 33% of cannabis users in the United States admitted that they had used cocaine, good evidence of the breakage in that link. More important, it's the evidence of the general comfort of Holland with itself. It's a very densely populated country [around five words unintelligible] liberal attitudes to social sex, prostitution and pornography as well as to soft drugs, yet the incidence of AIDS is not excessive in Holland. The fraction of AIDS sufferers who are drug injectors is only half of that in the United States and a third of that in Europe as a whole, the rate of teenage pregnancy is lower, and in general family structure seems stronger and the country seems more content with itself than in many countries where the attitudes towards the use of drugs are more draconian. 

Hounding and criminalising users of cannabis glorifies and glamorises the drug. It drives its use underground, it makes it more difficult to educate users about the possible perils, it does little to control profiteering and drug related crime and can destroy the lives of otherwise entirely respectable members of society by labelling them as criminals [applause]. It would be a sign not of weakness, but of political maturity and social responsibility to decriminalise this drug [applause]. I am sorry that this government in which we have, I almost said 'had' instead of 'have', so much hope is not yet willing to open up debate on this issue. Perhaps the Independent On Sunday would have secured more support and interest from the government if, rather than running a lengthy and costly campaign, it had simply sponsored Formula One [laughter and applause]. 

Back to the top

Jon Snow :Thankyou very much Colin Blakemore, and I'm going to move straight on to a different perspective from David Partington. David has lived and worked amongst addicts and alcoholics at Guild Hall Manor[?] for seventeen years, He's director of Guild Hall[?] Christian centres, he's also trustee of the Standing Conference On Drug Abuse which is a mix of statutory and voluntary bodies working in drugs, and the National Drugs Prevention Alliance, as well as being a founder member and chairman of the Evangelical Alliance Coalition On Drugs. David Partington. [applause]

David Partington :Thankyou very much for the welcome, the warm welcome, and the invitation to speak from the Independent on Sunday. I think the point at which a society can basically write its own death warrant is when pleasure or instant gratification become the predominating feature of its citizens at the expense of the vulnerable. I'm still amazed actually by the fact that I really did believe that this would be a balanced debate, and it must be a feeling that I've got somewhat akin to my Christian predecessors who were actually forced, rather than invited, to enter the arena [slight laughter]. Not only had the majority of the floor made up their minds as to the final results, but the lions had the full support of the management [slight laughter]. But despite the best efforts of history, we're still going strong after 2000 years. I actually [one word unintelligible] again however that history is less kind in its judgement of the rationale for the decriminalisation of cannabis, especially when we look objectively, rather than emotively, at the events of the last thirty or forty years. 

In fact, the stance adopted by campaigners is really quite bizarre, especially when we look at the evidence presented by such august bodies as the British Medical Association who recognise, so they state in a recent press release, that we're debating the decriminalisation of substance which leads to 3 times greater tar inhalation than tobacco and that those levels remain, hardly surprisingly, in the respiratory tract three times longer with all the consequence of cardio-vascular disease, bronchitis, emphysema et cetera [someone shouts 'unless you have another spliff that is']. Equally bizarre is the fact that those who wish to decriminalise cannabis are prepared to fly in the face of society's popular will to spend millions of pounds to reduce the heavy emotional and financial cost of accidents, injuries and deaths through drink driving. Yet here we are, here some people are, glibly proposing measures which would lead to more people driving around wrapped up in cotton wool. 

You could of course, conveniently, dismiss such facts as invalid or the burden of proof as inadequate, as doctors and scientists have done previously with tragic results. You may have seen in last Sunday's Telegraph, which I got in addition to the Independent on Sunday, which reported the wish bias of some scientists and doctors in the fifties who were so reluctant to accept the link between smoking tobacco and lung cancer. According to the American Journal of Epidemiology these smokers didn't want to admit that their habit was damaging to themselves or anyone else. The tragedy is that wishful thinking resulted in many more people dying of lung cancer and other diseases. Wishful thinking looks at statistic results not at people. And cannabis damages people Few of you will have had the opportunity to experience that, simply because those who are damaged drop out, and some die, of the circles in which many people mix. 

I've seen that damage, as has been mentioned, over seventeen years of working at the Guild Hall[?] Manor rehabilitation centre, counselled many of the hundreds of addicts, of residents who lived there, shared my life and my family's life with those men. Highly intelligent, sensitive men, the human face of cannabis abuse. They were often introduced to cannabis, not by some dealer or pusher, but by a friend or even a relative. That's what they told me, that's what they told me. They told us how these friends and some of their relatives kept telling them there was nothing really wrong with cannabis, how there was no way that they could become addicted or get involved with other drugs. Initially they took a couple of puffs at the odd weekend [around two words unintelligible due to sceptical murmurings in the audience]

Jon Snow : Can you let the speaker make his point, because no debate can really be fair unless everybody gets a fair crack at the whip [applause].

David Partington : Sooner or later they needed to smoke it every day of the week, but they still fooled themselves they were in control. Slowly but surely they became, so they tell me, increasingly convinced that, again, everything was OK. But they also recognised and acknowledged, had the guts to recognise and acknowledge, that they were psychologically dependent. They even told one another, however, that using cannabis was safer than alcohol on the basis that it didn't make them aggressive. Sadly, they were still spaced out and stoned, in that sad bemused state of being which was seen as something of a virtue. They didn't, of course, tell one another they were becoming increasingly demotivated about school or work and about everything else. Neither could they see until it was too late that they, they said, were being robbed of their dignity and their real potential. Or how other drugs, as a consequence, were being used more and more to stop the growing discomfort and in the search for an even better high. Tragically these men that I worked with, the Johns, the Noels, the Peters, the Terrys, were someone's sons, and when they descended into a life of crime, despair, misery and ill health not only did they suffer, but so did the people around them. I get anxious letters because of the work I'm involved in from parents, parents waking up to the realisation that their twelve year old, their thirteen year old, their fourteen year olds have an increasing dependency on cannabis. [Several audience members shout out things like 'you never ask why', other audience members shh them]

Jon Snow : Excuse me, excuse me, I did ask that people who perhaps have a different point of view from yours should be given the floor. This is their moment, you'll have yours in a minute.

David Partington :Thankyou. I had a phone call from a father last week who had spent the whole of the previous night awake, desperately worried about his fifteen year old son, who we'll call James. James had come home that night violently ill, saying that he'd had much more cannabis than he'd ever had before. His dad had to stay awake to ensure that he didn't suffocate on the vomit that he kept throwing up. Through that night the father clung to the hope that James, because he had been so violently ill, would never touch cannabis again. And no, I'm not going to hit you with the fact that he died, but the next morning James woke up and trotted out the sad litany of the people who get into cannabis dependence - 'it's not really a problem, it must have been something in the dope'. The problem is that James had become used to being stoned as part of his coping mechanism. 

There are thousands upon thousands of James' in the harsh world outside the sophisticated comfort of the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre. Decriminalise cannabis and the young people using it will become a small fraction of those who turn on to it for whom decriminalisation would be a governmental green light to become intoxicated. Decriminalisation equals more people using it, equals more people becoming addicted. I don't believe that the large majority of the 44 million other people in this country are interested in the Independent on Sunday's campaign, or even in being here. [One audience member starts talking, others shh him, one says 'let him speak']

Jon Snow : I can only ask you decently just to be quiet until the speaker has completed please, you'll have your opportunity in a moment. You'll have your opportunity in a moment.

David Partington : I think they instinctively recognise the hypocrisy behind the implication that cannabis is benign, really no more harmful than the milk on your cornflakes. Similarly I don't think they're convinced by the distorted logic of those who through self-interest imply that cannabis would actually add something positive to their lives. 

I really will finish. Thankfully the majority of young people in this country have chosen not to use cannabis. I believe that intrinsically that is because they want something better but, like all vulnerable people, they want some help. They desperately want to see a generation of people who are prepared to model, sacrificially, an alternative in which honesty, dignity, compassion and other positive qualities prevail over those things which corrupt and rob them of their potential. Their quest for the highest and the best for their lives is in no way served by this campaign which only offers second best. So I want to make a plea, finally, to everyone who is here: Please, please, use your influence, your amazing creativity, your wealth if you've got it, to build and develop those things in our society culture that are worth our young people participating in, rather than one which does nothing but invite them to be drop-outs and be stoned [applause].

Jon Snow : We're going to take a brief burst from those who cannot contain themselves any longer, and then we must move on to our final speaker. So as the forest is densest over there, I'll take you.

Person 26 :Thankyou. I've been trying to get a word in since the beginning, because several points...I'm going to make very brief points. I've had 32 years experience in investigating the cannabis issue. As a person who has lived in a society where cannabis has been [one word unintelligible], other drugs have been used, and also in a society where people haven't taken drugs, I can say that I don't see any difference in the number of deaths or cancers or any other diseases among the cannabis users as opposed to the ones who don't use it. I think that, as far as the research goes, there's been so much research done already, I think there's such an abundance of facts to explore and investigate that the argument that not enough research has been done is erroneous [slight applause]. Also as far as bringing in this idea of the tobacco and alcohol coming in from Europe - that doesn't indicate an increase in consumption, it indicates that it's too expensive in this country [applause].

Person 27 :Following a speech like that [David Partington's], the first thing that springs to mind is 'where do we start in answering that?'. I'd like to leap back quickly to something that Peter Stoker put up on the board [overhead projector] earlier on. He mentioned the words 'a drug-free life'. I want to know how he feels about chocolate, tea, coffee, penicillin, aspirin, valium, codeine [applause]. And all the other stuff that is put in our foods. It's been said by a minister of the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] in America that cannabis is less harmful than most foods we commonly consume.

I'd also like to talk about some of the stuff that was mentioned just now. I know people who cut themselves - that's not an argument to ban razor blades. A lot of us can responsibly use things that could potentially harm us. There are many people in society with self-abusive personalities, with problems of low motivation and that should be helped, that should be dealt with. Just because people have problems with low motivation, with abusing themselves in many different ways, that doesn't mean that the civil rights of the majority of us should be infringed upon. And just one last point on the fact that the last speaker was a Christian.

Jon Snow : The debate is about cannabis rather than Christianity.

Person 27 : Cannabis is the most useful plant on the planet with respect to the environment, with respect to many things. Do you think that God would have put it on the planet if we weren't meant to use it? [applause]

Person 28 : In response to the last speaker [David Partington] I'd just like to say that yes, I've had no experience personally, but yes it's possible that cannabis can ruin lives. But I've got children, I've smoked cannabis fairly regularly for 20 years now, it's never done me any harm and I'd rather my children had the choice of legally using cannabis or alcohol. And I think I know which one they'd choose and I think I know which one would do them less harm [applause].

Person 29* : I'm old enough to remember the prohibition and civil disobedience in India when all these things, substances, were banished. As well as in the United States that hasn't stopped anything, what it has actually happened is made the bootleggers richer. Likewise cannabis is something, or anything else for that matter, does make most prohibitors richer. I am in the independent watchdog in the prison service and I can see a lot of people who are here who could be coming to prison. What I do not see is the number of people who are traffickers, big time traffickers and Mafia, who will not come to the prison service. In my role I have constantly advised successive Home Secretaries, the previous one and the present one, to decriminalise this drug. Unfortunately the present one is also going the same one as the previous ones. One hopes that in the four or five years that we have, we might be able to change the mind of the present one, that's one of the hopes. The other thing is that why should we even talk about cannabis as a therapeutic drug for medical purposes, it should be a leisure drug as well [applause]. I want to [?] smoke cannabis, I don't do it in this country, but I do feel a civil liberty in people is being denied. And it has failed in every country in the world, all prohibition has failed, and I'm sure it'll fail here [applause].

Back to the top

Jon Snow : Still an absolute forest, but I can't take any more questions at the moment, we must now move on to our final speaker who has come here especially from New York, Lynn Zimmer. She is Associate Professor of Sociology at Queens College, City University of New York. She works with the Lindesmith Institute, she works closely with George Soros who has a very well known position on this situation, and she's published numerous articles on drug use, drug testing and law enforcement. Lynn Zimmer, thankyou. [applause]

Lynn Zimmer : Nice to be here today. I want, for a moment, for you not to think about cannabis, not to think about drug policy. I want you to think about a man and a woman who meet at work, and who are attracted to each other. Both of them are married but not to each other, and after a couple of weeks of flirting these people decide to leave work one afternoon and go off to a hotel room and have sex. Now probably most people, many people, would say this behaviour is immoral, they don't like it, they might also say that it's harmful. In fact it's easy to see that there could be some harm from this activity, it could cause a break-up of one or both marriages, it could leave a number of children without both of their parents in the home, cause various types of harm to the family and to the community and to the society. The employer might also find it harmful. I mean, after all, these people snuck off from work on time that he was paying for. So he could claim that this activity harmed him.

The question I want you to ponder is: should the adulterers be arrested? Would the threat of arrest have deterred them? Or maybe some other people who have the similar kind of ideas? And even if it would deter, even if arresting adulterers would achieve some deterrence, would it be worth it? Given all of the things that the police and the criminal justice system need to be focusing on, would it be worthwhile for resources to be taken away from some of those other areas and spent on an all-out war against adultery? And is there even a possibility that a war on adultery would make things worse? It might lead to the break up of more marriages.

You know, we could have an all-out war on adultery. We could hire hotel clerks to report suspected adulterers to the police, a special hotline number. We could have employers install video cameras at work in the water cooler, try to catch people flirting, because, you know, flirting is a gateway [laughter and applause]. But would those kind of practices make things better or make things worse?

Another example. Every Friday a man on the way home from work takes part of his pay cheque, puts down a ten quid bet on a horse. His family needed the money, children need new shoes. Well even if we agree this man's behaviour is wrong, even harmful in some way, what should we do? Would putting him in prison make it better or worse? Would society, or his family for that matter, be helped by an all-out war against gambling? Because really, an all-out war against gambling would be an all-out war against gamblers. Like an all-out war against adultery would mean a war against adulterers. Well these are the kind of questions that I want you to think about when considering cannabis policy. Lots of people think cannabis use is wrong, immoral, clearly cannabis has some potential to do us harm, not too much, but some.

Recently with John Morgan, a physician in New York who's here today, we, John Morgan and I, wrote a book called Marijuana Myths Marijuana Facts, maybe some of you have seen it. We review 30 years of scientific research on marijuana and many of the issues that have been talked about here today. It's a detailed history with lots of complicated research, and if you want the details on it then I urge you to look at the book. This copy I want to donate to Nigel Evans [applause]. So I'm not going to go over all of these issues. Again, many of them have been talked about today. There are three things that I think we need to be concerned about.

First is the issue of lung damage, which seems to be concentrated mainly in very heavy long-term cannabis smokers. It's not as serious as the risks of tobacco smoking because even very heavy cannabis users cannot smoke nearly as much as tobacco smokers, but there is some reason to be concerned there. Second, that cannabis use may contribute to some highway accidents, probably not too many, but maybe some. Clearly it's not as debilitating as alcohol, but I think there is at least enough evidence of facts that we should warn against the dangers of driving after smoking cannabis. And finally there's the problem that we see with all psychoactive drugs, that a couple of the speakers talked about today, some people use too much. Every psychoactive drug has that dilemma. This seems to be less of a problem with cannabis than with most other psychoactive drugs. In fact, of all of the psychoactive drugs people use, cannabis seems to be the least dejecting. And of course some cannabis users use other, more addicting, drugs in addition to using cannabis, but there is nothing in the pharmacology of cannabis, nothing in the properties of cannabis itself, that would lead people to using these other drugs. So on balance, I would have to say, based on the evidence, the harms of cannabis are not substantial. They exist, talk about them, warn against them, but they are not substantial. However, they do need to be identified and to be accepted as the cost of cannabis' widespread use.

Still, as with the examples of gambling and adultery, knowing the harms of cannabis use does not tell us which policy is best. If, when we criminalise a behaviour, the criminal law creates harms of its own, then criminalisation may not be the best option. We're not the first people to think about these issues. Thirty years ago the Wooten Commission in Britain, and commissions in four other countries, Canada, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands, all looked at these issues, weighing the costs of cannabis prohibition against any potential benefit, and they all identified a number of harms that were associated with using the criminal law to try to stop cannabis use. And again all those, I think, have been toughed upon here today so I'll just reidentify them briefly.

First are the financial costs, and it's very difficult to calculate but we know they are considerable. In some places the police devote between five and ten percent of their time making cannabis arrests. So decriminalising cannabis, or depenalising it, as I think the term often is here, could be like adding five to ten percent to existing police forces. Last year in the United States the police arrested over 500,000 people, half a million people, for cannabis possession. There were other arrests for sale and distribution and other arrests for other drugs, but a half million people in the United States arrested for cannabis possession, most of them possessing small amounts for personal use. By my calculations, for one year alone, 1996, that cost American taxpayers $500 million. Sentencing cannabis users to probation or to jail of course makes the costs of criminalisation even greater.

So, a dilemma here is that if the laws aren't tough and are not widely enforced they can't possibly have much deterrent value, and yet for an activity that is engaged in by so many people it's difficult to get the laws to ever be tough enough or the punishments to be tough enough, because then you keep raising the cost of the prohibition. There are people who are now advocating increased enforcement. In fact one of the pieces of paper that was on the podium when I came up here today, at the table, was a press release from the Christian Institute, that's a British group, and one of their claims is the reason the law hasn't been effective is that it hasn't been enforced enough, and they say 'we say our drug laws have not been properly enforced'. So there are advocates of more arrests, more punishment, harsher punishment.

In addition to the financial costs, of course criminalisation has a lot of costs for the individual users and often for their family. I would say without a doubt, and all five commissions said this quite clearly in their reports thirty years ago, that being arrested for cannabis is clearly more harmful than cannabis itself could be [applause]. Cannabis has harms, but the harms of arrest are large, and often permanent. They have a criminal record, it can interfere with their education, interfere with their employment, interfere with their entire future. So criminalising cannabis possession and use turns cannabis users into criminals, harms themselves and does ultimately become harm for the entire society. This is clearly one of the issues, maybe the main issue, that guided Dutch policy makers toward decriminalisation in the 1970s, the desire to stop the marginalisation of cannabis users and the feeling that it might even push, you know, sort of, increase rebellion, increase alienation, increase disrespect for the law generally. So all five of those commissions recommended decriminalisation. Of course only the Dutch government followed that recommendation.

Now, just to finish off, to talk about what's on the other side of the equation. Are there any possible benefits to criminalisation? We know there are a lot of costs, and again these things have been talked about today so I don't have to go over them too much. Mainly this has to do with the issues of use. Does [around one word unclear] laws deter people from using cannabis? Would there be a lot more cannabis use if it were decriminalised? And, the harms that are identified, would there be a lot more harm? That is, even if were some more users would it automatically be a lot more [around three words unintelligible] of harm?

Well we don't really know about how much the law deters. I can tell you from the United States the data, I think, are clear - that in the states that decriminalised cannabis in the 1970s, compared to the other states that kept their criminal penalties in place, the rates of cannabis use were the same. It went up in the 70s in the states that decriminalised, it went up in the 70s in the states that did not. In the 80s it went down in the states regardless of what the policy was there.

Jon Snow : We've unfortunately run out of time, I'm terribly sorry. Do you want a final sentence?

Lynn Zimmer : Well, the issues of morality are going to remain. People are going to continue to believe that cannabis use is immoral, it's wrong, we know that it's harmful, but the reason there's a serious debate today is because non-cannabis users also have started to question cannabis policy [applause].

Jon Snow : I'm sorry to have brought matters to a close quite so brutally, but the truth of the matter is that we have the hall until one o'clock and we are therefore really well out of time. I would like to do a couple of things: one, I'm more than aware that it's a strongly opinionated audience and that, by definition, is what it would have been, because if you invite anybody who is prevented from doing something to come and have an opportunity to discuss the potential of doing it, clearly the people most interested in doing it will be the people who'll take up the bulk of the seats, and that is by definition. But I'd like to ask first of all the first question which may be a rather obvious one: Is there anybody in the audience whose mind has in any way been changed by what they've heard today? Well I think that's a fair indication as to the...well we've got a few, a smattering here, three, four, five, perhaps.

And the second question is a more profound one but I guess I can predict the answer which is really to take up Mike Goodman's suggestion from Release which is: given the fantastic differences between those who feel it should continue to be banned and those who feel it should be decriminalised, how many people here support the idea of a Royal Commission which would take evidence, take the experience, take the research from all quarters and determine what perhaps was the best way forward. Would anybody support a Royal Commission to look at decriminalisation? [the majority of hands are raised. Some shouts including: 'Legalise it now'] And now those who think that would be a bad idea [a few hands raised]. In a sense it is inevitable that most people who come to a conference like this will believe in decriminalisation now, and I think that more or less goes without saying.

The only other question that might be interesting is how many people are against the decriminalisation of cannabis for therapeutic, medical reasons[no hands raised]. That's also interesting and rewarding. 

On that note and aware that this conference has been closely monitored by the Independent on Sunday but by other media too, I'd like very warmly to thank every single one of our speakers, each one of whom has thought out their position very clearly on this and presented it very clearly. I'd like to thank them and I'd like to thank you very warmly for coming and participating, I'm sorry I've not been able to draw on everybody. And finally I'd like to thank the Independent on Sunday for making this event possible. Thankyou all very much. [applause]

Back to the top

ukcia banner
Use this banner to link to UKCIA

Page designed and maintained by UKCIA