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The Pot War In England

Wm. F. Buckley Jr., Dec 8, 1995


A friend abroad writes to ask whether the U.S. press has picked up on the November 11 editorial in The Lancet entitled ``Deglamorising cannabis.'' The answer is: No, not as far as I am aware. And indeed no-news here is very strange news because The Lancet is the pre-eminent medical publication in Britain, something like the New England Journal of Medicine. And the extraordinary last line of the editorial reads, ``Cannabis per se is not a hazard to society but driving it further underground may well be.'' Inquiry into the story reveals that a Labour MP, Clare Short, proposed in the House of Commons recently that pot be legalized. As would have been the case if she had made the same proposal in Congress, Miss Short was all but run out of town. But one has to suppose that some of the data she cited seeped through to the British consciousness. Begin with the poll in Glasgow. It documents a quite astonishing story, namely that one-half of all students between the ages of 14 and 25 admit to smoking pot ``every day.'' Miss Short then went on to cite the experience of cannabis use in the Netherlands and in doing so bumped into another story. It is this, that for twenty years the authorities in Amsterdam have simply ignored the use of pot, which is regularly sold in four thousand coffee shops in amounts up to 30 grams per customer. Technically, the use of the drug, let alone the sale of it, is illegal, and during its most recent campaign the governing party pledged to rectify this hypocrisy and was all set to do that when it was reminded by its neighbors of something called the Schengen agreement, which introduced the border-free zone between the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, Luxembourg, and Belgium. France threatened to annul the agreement because cannabis was flowing merrily into a country in which no drug is permitted to compete with alcohol. The Dutch have said that they must therefore crack down on pot, which would mean closing half the coffee houses, not a popular idea. But The Lancet, reviewing the controversy kicked up by Miss Short, asks the Home Office to consider the implications of the rise in marijuana use in Great Britain. Notwithstanding its laws, consumption of pot has doubled in ten years. And The Lancet goes on, ``Perhaps the politicians' real fear was that freedom to use soft drugs would automatically progress to increased use of substances such as cocaine and heroin. If so, they must have overlooked the recent Dutch government review which pointed out that decriminalization of possession of soft drugs had not led to a rise in the use of hard drugs.'' Even so, the government struggles on. Last year Home Secretary Michael Howard increased the maximum fine for possession of the drug from $750 to $3,750, which is rough stuff but not, of course, to be compared with going to jail for a year or ten, as we do things here. There it ``depends where you get caught,'' writes drug-reformer Mike Goodman. ``There are parts of Wales and various rural areas where you'll certainly go to court for possessing cannabis and get a fairly stiff fine. In other areas, such as London, you'd be unlikely even to get a caution.'' In London, what you usually get is ``informal disposal'' -- which means the police throw the confiscated drugs down the drain. The evidence pours in. Another Home Office survey, this time of 25-year-olds, reveals that eight out of ten men and women have taken illegal drugs and that the biggest consumers were not schoolchildren but young white males from the professional and middle classes. At the other end of the empire we read that a businessman in Vancouver is quite openly engaged in distributing cannabis seeds all over the world, is paying his taxes, and the government of British Columbia is perfectly happy to accept the wages of sin, keeping his tax money and ignoring his illegal activity. ``If the drug ever does become legal in Britain,'' writes a correspondent of The Herald (Glasgow), ``it will be because of the sheer weight of such statistics, which indicate a threefold increase in the use of pot since 1989.''

What is striking isn't so much the difference between what is legal and what people do, as the quite calm acceptance by the medical community of the relative harmlessness of cannabis, though the point is regularly made that if the weed were legalized, its quality could be superintended. And attention continues, however gradually, to focus on the paradox. Although ``no exact figures are available,'' says the dispatch from The Herald, ``it is known the Government is spending about twice as much on policing and prosecuting drug offenders as it does on education, prevention, and rehabilitation.'' That strikes some people, including your servant, as dumb.