Thursday, 8 May 2008

Cannabis reclassification: what have the government been smoking?

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has confirmed that cannabis is to be reclassified. Currently a class C drug alongside the likes of Temazepam, the weed is due to be upgraded to class B, putting it in the company of Speed. Possession will now carry a maximum prison sentence of five years, whilst dealers face 14 years behind bars.

This doesn't come as a great surprise; it's been in the pipeline since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister and immediately launched a review. And as recently as last month, he said that he wanted to change the law, so as to "send out a message to young people" about the dangers of cannabis.

Hang on a second. We're supposed to change the law - to send a message? Since when has the criminal law been there to send messages to people? The law is there to tell us what we can and cannot do, and to tell us which punishment fits which crime. It isn't there for sending vague moral messages to the population. (That's exactly the sort of misguided attitude that gave us laws like Section 28, for example.)

Let's get this clear. Cannabis is illegal at the moment, and it always has been, whether class C or class B. Messing with the classification doesn't change that in the slightest - it's always been against the law. So we can dispense with this nonsense about sending the wrong signals to people.

There's a counter-argument to that, of course. Supporters of the PM will say that by keeping cannabis illegal but downgrading it to a lower category, people have got the impression that weed is more acceptable than other drugs. And I understand the logic there. But if that's your view, then surely you'd have to dispense with the entire drug classification system altogether? As long as drugs are sorted into different categories with different legal penalties, there's always a risk that people will take certain drugs to be somehow "less illegal" than others. If that's how you feel, then have the guts to make a consistent argument, and call for a scrapping of drugs classification.

I think the classification system is a very good idea indeed. Different recreational drugs have very different effects, both on the health of the users and on wider society. People who use them and traffic in them should be penalised at different levels. Just as it would be madness to give the same sentence for shoplifting as for rape, it would insane to dole out the same punishment for cannabis as for heroin. The classification system, far from sending waffly messsages, is there solely to make sure that drugs offences are punished proportionately.

Which brings me to the main point of my argument here. Brown's supporters argue that the reclassification of cannabis is there to protect young people from the scourge of drugs. So which is a better way of keeping our kids safe when they start to experiment with weed? To confiscate the drugs, give them a stern warning, and a chance to rethink? Or to arrest them, drag them through our criminal justice system, and give them a criminal record which will hang round their necks like a millstone for the rest of their lives?

A drugs conviction can stop you from visiting the USA on the visa waiver programme. It'll show up on a CRB check, and stop you doing voluntary work. You have to declare it on your UCAS form when applying to university. It can bar you from a career in the professions. And our politicians want to inflict this disproportionate punishment on our kids, for the heinous crime of having a couple of spliffs - as a way of protecting them?!

I'm sorry, but this really just beggars belief.


Anonymous said...

I think you should have given your chav a blue/white colour scheme and maybe a Magen David on his Burberry cap. He looks a bit incongruous at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Fully legalise the stuff (as opposed to mere de-criminalisation), tax it properly to offset the strain on the NHS and let people do what they will with their lives. I'll probably write a piece soon explaining the arguments in more depth, but this is just a cynical piece of manoeuvring designed to outflank the Tories on law & order.

Jonny Wright said...

I entirely agree with you there Leo - but assuming the stuff is going to stay illegal for some time (and I can't see full legalisation any time in the near future) it should certainly be in class C rather than class B.

David said...

I have just signed the LCA's pledge on (

I pledged that I WILL vote in the General Election but NOT for any candidate that wants to keep cannabis illegal regardless of their party or any other policies they have.

I'm sorry that it's had to come to that but our politicians have refused to allow a sensible debate to take place so making it a red line in the sand deal breaker of an issue has become the only option - they will ignore anything else.

I have a feeling that come the General Election, finding out where my Lib Dem candidate actually stands on the issue is going to be a bit like pulling teeth! They seem incapable of expressing their views without spin.