Legalise all drugs

Customers at Britain's first cannabis cafe, The Dutch Experience in Stockport, are reported to be jubilant at the announcement by home secretary David Blunkett that the government intends to downgrade cannabis from class B to class C, making possession for personal use a non-arrestable offence. However, they and the thousands of others welcoming the change should be warned against celebrating too soon. There is no certainty that this present step will be followed by others leading to full legalisation. Also, the change in the law is not immediate: Blunkett's announcement was of a proposal to introduce legislation into the next session of parliament. Until then, the police still have the power to arrest people for possession. What is more, in an attempt to appease the critics of his policy, Blunkett plans to increase the maximum penalty for supplying class C drugs from 10 to 14 years. So, while The Dutch Experience customers can enjoy their smoke without fear of arrest, the cafe owner could be banged up for the best part of a decade if he was ever to sell a joint. Such a compromise - making cannabis legal to own but unobtainable from any legal or regulated source - exposes New Labour's confusion and cowardice. The consumer will still have no guarantee of quality or purity. As with most drugs, health risks from cannabis are caused less by the substance itself than by the consequences of its illegality. One cannabis user told me: "Dealers include nutmeg, animal dung, henna, wax and more dangerous contaminants to bulk it out...people therefore smoke the stuff to kill the germs and damage their lungs rather than eating it as a cake." Illegality - not only of marijuana, but of all drugs - also forces up prices way beyond value and is a major indirect cause of drug-related crime. Even from the government's own perspective the new policy makes no sense. It is sold to the public as a way of separating cannabis from so-called hard drugs. This is a modern myth. Evil pushers sell cannabis to children and then get them hooked on heroin. The reality is that young people experiment. Usually they do so with their peers - who collectively encourage but also move on to a more balanced lifestyle. So, unlike Tommy Sheridan and the Scottish Socialist Party, we communists do not go along with the line that 'hard' and 'soft' drugs should be regarded differently. Our view is that, so long as no one else is harmed, adults should be free to eat, drink, smoke or otherwise ingest whatever substances they wish, without interference from the state. The libertarian wing of the bourgeoisie, including The Economist magazine, has advocated a similar position for years - although of course from a different standpoint. In contrast to Iain Duncan Smith's clumsy attempt to attract the bigot vote by going to Brixton, even shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin recognises that there are "serious arguments for legalising, licensing and taxing cannabis". Maybe Blunkett plans to take this step eventually - it would provide a welcome new source of tax revenue after all. The public resignation of former drugs tsar Keith Hellawell illustrates the chaos in the establishment as it attempts to formulate a workable policy. Harsh anti-drug laws are used to harass and control the population. But with so many people breaking the law against consuming cannabis - four million in Britain each year, according to the British Crime Survey - it is becoming untenable to maintain. Attempts to enforce laws which are widely disregarded reduce public respect for the law as a whole, and can lead people to question the whole system. Blunkett may justify his policy to his colleagues by talk of saving police time, reducing the prison population and decreasing friction between the police and youth - especially black youth. But in reality pressure from below - however individualistic and uncoordinated - has forced him to act. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Schools Association, said the move to liberalise cannabis laws "sent a mixed message to children". In reality it is the people who have sent a clear message to the state, that they will simply ignore its interference in their use of recreational drugs. The government has given ground on cannabis, but there is still a long way to go. Ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA) is enjoyed by many hundreds of thousands of young people, but remains a class A drug, with both consumers and suppliers risking long prison sentences. The case of ecstasy undermines the arguments, often put forward by opponents of drug law reforms, that increased social disorder would follow. In his book E for Ecstasy (1994) Nicholas Saunders demonstrates that the sudden reduction in violence and hooliganism at football matches in the early 1990s was caused by young men switching from alcohol to ecstasy as their drug of choice before matches. In calling for the consumption of drugs to be legalised, we are not advocating irresponsible or anti-social behaviour. Social forces will encourage people to use drugs sensibly, but those who put others at risk by working or driving while under the influence of alcohol, cannabis or other substances should still be penalised. Most users of illegal drugs currently function perfectly well in the world of work and society. With legalisation drug use will become even more socialised for most people, as is the consumption of alcohol for all but a small minority. Alcohol is just as dangerous, when misused, as most class A drugs, yet is, of course perfectly legal. The government plans to decrease harassment of cannabis users - not willingly, out of any rationality or generosity from the ruling class, but reluctantly, under pressure from below. This pressure must be sustained, and the Socialist Alliance should take a lead in the campaign to abolish all laws restricting consumption of drugs. We demand legalisation of all drugs, free medical care and advice for addicts, unbiased education on the effects and health risks of different substances, and pure, reliable sources of supply for those who choose to consume them. Mary Godwin