A heady atmosphere pervades the House

By Peter Stoker for HNN News

British MPs vote to demote cannabis to a lesser grade of significance.

What do you do when you have put your name to a policy proposal that is seemingly becoming more unpopular by the day? How about inserting it into the Parliamentary calendar at short notice, with limited time, to catch critics off balance? If it could be sandwiched in-between more inflammatory items this should conveniently distract the media – and should it happen that the official Opposition are contemporaneously pre-occupied with their own tragedy, this would indicate an ideal time to slip it through.

But just in case things turn nasty in the House, with risk that the messenger might get shot, it would be prudent to be somewhere else – and let the apprentice take the flak.

Thus it was, yesterday in Parliament. Squeezed between Prime Minister’s Questions (with Tory leader Ian Duncan-Smith possibly within sight of his own execution), a major debate on Northern Ireland, and other business. Opponents given 6 days notice at most – and several got less. And with Caroline Flint deputising for the noticeably absent Home Secretary.

The debate on reclassification of cannabis took place in a House unusually crowded for this kind of issue, which can be explained by its juxtaposition with the other big agenda items. What was not  explained, and caused several MPs in all parties to complain bitterly, was why the debate was limited to 90 minutes, which in effect gave backbenchers only 30 minutes for discussion after the opening speeches were made. As one of them, Peter Wishart, pointed out, the next agenda item, the Mersey Tunnels Bill, hardly competed with cannabis as a subject of national importance, but had been given unlimited time (and in the event took well over three hours).

Labour MP John Mann risked the disapproval of his bosses by saying that the presence of “three-line whips all around the place” was “entirely inappropriate on an issue such as this” – and pronounced himself not persuaded by the choice of arguments utilised by Minister Caroline Flint on behalf of the Government (though he did, in the event, vote in favour of the principle of reclassification).


Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin was equally unimpressed by Ms Flint. Abandoning his usual urbanity, he described the hapless substitute for Mr Blunkett as “all over the place”. It was evident to onlookers that this was not a fight of her own choosing; not only had Mr Blunkett left her to face the howling pack, but her predecessor in the post of ‘Minister with Drugs Portfolio’ – Bob Ainsworth – uttered never a word. Another MP who had been unstinting in championing a liberalising approach through his zealous chairmanship of the Home Affairs Select Committee, but strangely silent today, was Labour MP Chris Mullin.

These were not the only instances of political laryngitis. The backbencher with the House record for number of questions asked, Mr Paul Flynn, an ardent Labour advocate of drug legalisation and consummate interrupter of other speakers, intervened but once, asking of Ms Flint, if she would “give way” (parliamentary parlance for ‘Can I get a word in?). “No” she said, and that was the last we heard of him. For now.

Paul Flynn’s regular Labour team-mate in arguing for drug law liberalisation has been Dr Brian Iddon, a university lecturer from the northwest of England. He too was muted in his contribution, but fulsome in his praise of the work of DrugScope, the NGO which nets over £3 million per year from the government, and repays this by lobbying the government to weaken its drug laws. DrugScope had produced a document about ‘Gateway’ – the syndrome of progression from one drug to another, and which is frequently associated with cannabis – principally because cannabis is the most-used illegal drug. DrugScope concede that there is such a thing as ‘Gateway’ but are dismissive of it having any significant effect on the use of other drugs in the UK scene – which happily coincides with their push for liberalisation of not only cannabis but ecstasy too. Dr Iddon made this praise in response to remarks by Liberal-Democrat drugs spokesman Mark Oaten, who suggested that a perceived increase in ‘home-grown’ cannabis would of itself separate users from the dealers in other drugs. Revealingly, Mr Oaten answered that he too was a beneficiary of DrugScope’s wisdom, having met their representatives only two days before.

Minister Ms Flint persevered with her task. Government strategy, she said, was always to focus on “… educating young people about the dangers of drugs, preventing drug misuse, combating the dealers, and treating addicts …”. Words that frequently, almost compulsively appeared in her contributions included “honesty”, “credibility” and “maturity”. Reclassification was apparently necessary in order to achieve these higher states of consciousness. The short-sightedness, not to mention expediency of this was breathtaking for some participants, but not to the Minister, who accused others of unfairly indulging in more word games than she was … ‘more spinned against than spinning’.

Oliver Letwin was unrepentant, and clinically took the Minister’s arguments apart. The purpose of this whole effort, he asserted, was the “crypto-legalisation of cannabis, in the sense that most young people will be only marginally deterred from taking it. They may be arrested, and they will be warned – and the warning will be that if they are subsequently arrested they will be warned”. The effect of this reclassification would be “… for more rather than fewer young people to be led into hard drugs”.

The Government’s policy was, he said, in “a dreadful muddle”. He went on to ask “Why have the Government introduced this policy?” He had expected the Minister to reject the position that young people would feel they were still breaking the law; in fact she had confirmed that they would still be acting illegally. He had expected her to deny use would increase; instead she had accepted it would. She had also not denied – as he had expected she might – that under the new legislation there would be no relief from dealer penalties for ‘small scale dealing between friends’. This was neither liberalisation nor repression – it was a “muddled middle”. Referring to his normal, well-mannered approach, he said “I do not specialise in saying such things about my political opponents, but in this case I think that the Home Secretary – who has chosen not to attend the debate for reasons that only he can tell – is seeking spurious, short-term popularity … that is not a responsible way to conduct the government of this country … we should consider the fate of our young people.

In the past, Oliver Letwin has expressed his admiration for David Blunkett, in fulfilling his duties despite the disabling effects of his blindness. But today he made no such concessions in attacking what he saw as reprehensible behaviour, compounded by not being present to face the music. He said “I continue to believe that the Home Secretary does not want to make the argument because he does not have an argument. What he is seeking is short-term popularity, and that is a very bad thing”.

Rejecting the notion of full legalisation, whilst acknowledging that one could construct arguments for this (presumably an olive branch to some right wing libertarians on his own benches) Mr Letwin went on to say that another plausible position was to try to “prevent young people from taking cannabis by doing what is done in Sweden – trying to take more effective measures to deter young people from taking it”.


Tory MP Graham Brady had made a contribution earlier in the week, in anticipation of this very debate, which moved the Speaker to congratulate him for making his points eloquently. There was no such courtesy from Ms Flint. Referring to the well-understood increase in maximum strength of cannabis worldwide (low-grade ‘weed’ in the hippy Haight-Ashbury 60s and 70s was down to 0.5 percent strength, whilst cultivated grades called ‘skunk’ or nederweed’ can range up to 30 percent strength) and knowing of the major increase of cannabis-related psychoses, Mr Brady asked if it was not therefore “… perverse to be down grading its classification in legislation?” Ms Flint would have none of this. The truth, she claimed, was that “… the scientific evidence does not fit his analysis”. In support, she cited the Forensic Science Service, saying they had demonstrated that the THC content “… does not differ significantly from the cannabis used years ago”. (This will come as a surprise to not a few leading scientists, of the calibre of Professor John Henry of Imperial College, one of the UK’s top experts in the field).

Tom Levitt, Labour, referred to the ‘decades’ of debates and the ‘endless’ reports, citing the Runciman Committee (‘Police Foundation’), the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Another speaker chipped in later with mention of the Rowntree report. Oliver Letwin’s reaction was unequivocal: “I do not think that a thousand committees will ever diminish the fact that when this order – I realise the Government will use their majority to get it through – and the accompanying legislation have gone through the two Houses of Parliament [Debate in the House of Lords is scheduled for 11th November] young people will be enticed to buy more, or more often, a substance from dangerous criminals, and they will then be led into hard drug use. That is not a rational policy and no number of committees will persuade me that it is”.

Lambeth Labour MP and former Minister Kate Hoey took a different tack in relation to the above-mentioned reporting bodies. The ACMD is presented as a colloquium of most eminent people (and was cited at the outset of this debate by Minister Flint as the body which “provides the scientific evidence on which to base our decisions”). Ms Hoey pointed out that it is “… part of the Home Office (i.e. not independent), is not a scientific advisory panel (there are hardly any scientists on it) and many of its members have no scientific qualifications. It has about 32 members, of whom a substantial number – about 13 – are committed to liberalisation of drug policy. It has no members from any organisations that have publicly said that they are not in favour of liberalisation. I therefore treat with a little bit of caution the assumption that everything they say is right”.


Speaking of her own constituency, Lambeth, and its unwanted role as a laboratory for drug policy experiments, and which other MPs supporting reclassification had cited as evidence of successful liberalisation, she went on to say “I have heard so much rubbish talked today about the Lambeth experiment that it would take me a very long time to deal with it. I will not refer to that experiment except to say that it was not a success. It was one of those schemes that was ‘doomed to success’ from the beginning because the Home Office had decided that it would be successful whatever the outcome”.

And finally, to her own Minister, by now more doubtable than redoubtable, she had this to say: “Why are we doing this now? What is the point of it? … We should not go ahead with introducing this measure glibly. I genuinely cannot understand why we are going down this line. Reclassification will move us further down the route of considering drug abuse as normal, and I am not prepared to support that today”.

Nottinghamshire Labour MP John Mann has earned a good reputation in the House for taking a studied approach to the drugs issue. His informal public inquiry into the problems of heroin abuse in his Bassetlaw constituency won wide praise and is now required reading. On this occasion he started by demonstrating his learning of matters in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and America. He used this to suggest that all drugs should be reclassified – too rich a diet for his fellows or the Minister to digest in such a short timescale. He moved on to praise Sweden for its constructive approach to drug abusers, in particular supporting the use of mandatory treatment, whatever the drug.

From this good beginning in the eyes of prevention advocates, things started to go pear-shaped as he enlarged on his plans for cannabis. In the name of ‘credibility’ (once more) he advanced the “need to separate the drugs market in people’s eyes …” and said he felt reclassification was “… a clarification and a strengthening” rather than a weakening of drugs policy. To do otherwise, he argued, was to “… treat young people as fools … we suggest to young people that these drugs are all the same and that they should say no to drugs. Say no to which drugs?”

Say no to reclassification? Despite the whips, 160 MPs did. With all but a few Liberal-Democrats siding the Government, the vote in favour came to 316. Encouraging for preventionists, but coming second doesn’t really help in politics.


It is difficult to reconcile John Mann’s criticism – that under the present classification system, all drugs are currently asserted to be the same – with the fact that there are three classes of drugs, not one. The notion that downgrading of cannabis, from Class B to Class C, is essential in order to distinguish it from Class A, has long puzzled many – and not just the dyslexic.

Equally puzzling is the Minister’s emphatic statement that full legalisation of cannabis “ … would lead to a massive increase in the use of cannabis and health problems” – when compared with the blandishments about the effects on prevalence accruing from reclassification. Something like a comparison of ‘full pregnancy’ with being ‘just a teeny bit pregnant’.

The proposition that downgrading is necessary to achieve ‘credibility’ is fraught with risk; what will be the next concession demanded by drug users and their apologists? Credibility is a fickle thing. It is in the nature of drug misuse that escalation is the norm. Must we therefore look forward to a sequence of outcries that ‘the current strategy is incredible’?

To paraphrase Mel Brooks, in speaking of this ill-managed ‘war about how to conduct the war on drugs’, all they want is a little peace … a little piece of cocaine, a little piece of speed …


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