Send the right message - legalise all drugs!

Eddie Ford on the downgrading of cannabis to a 'Class C' drug, and the attitude of communists

From last week the UK state's 'war on drugs' took a new turn. Cannabis is no longer treated by the authorities as a 'class B' drug - like amphetamines/speed - but rather as a 'class C' one, a category which also covers substances like anabolic steroids and tranquillisers such as valium. This is the first significant revision to the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which broke down drugs into three categories, with 'class A' containing things like cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and magic mushrooms (dried, fried or stewed).

So, spliff away? Well, not exactly. Cannabis still remains illegal - it is just now a little less illegal, so to speak. It remains a criminal offence to pass marijuana among friends or to allow people to consume cannabis in your home. You must not smoke a joint near a school or children - this is defined as 'aggravated circumstances' and could lead you into hot water. The actual cultivation and growing of cannabis plants is prohibited. Unsurprisingly, possession with intent to supply ('dealing') is illegal and continues to carry a 14-year maximum sentence plus an unlimited fine.

What is new is that the penalty for simple possession is changing - the maximum prison sentence has being reduced from five years to two. Also, police guidelines are to be 'streamlined' in order to iron out all the 'discrepancies' which have arisen over the years concerning how all the various regional police forces deal with those caught in possession of cannabis. From now on theoretically those over 18 caught in possession will have it confiscated and get a flea in their ear from their friendly local bobby, while those under that age will be arrested, taken to a police station and given a stern warning or reprimand - and if it is your second offence you will either receive a final warning or actually be charged, with the added pleasure of being referred to the local youth offending team.

All in all, these new measures hardly radiate laid-back, 'do your own thing, man' libertarianism.

For all that, there were howls of outrage about the cannabis reclassification policy from the usual suspects - the British Medical Association, opportunist Tory MPs, tabloid newspapers, etc. Naturally, for them this 'sends out the wrong message' - that drugs are really not that bad, when the only 'right message' is that all drugs are evil all of the time: just say no, as Ronald Reagan and the cast of Grange Hill once notoriously said. Indeed, for these hard-core reactionaries, the reclassification of cannabis is yet another sign of the creeping 'permissive society' agenda that is being imposed on the long-suffering British people by bureaucrats and liberals. In this vein, the slightly potty ex-leftist Melanie Phillips thundered all last week in the Daily Mail about how successive UK governments have succumbed to "defeatism" - the 'war against drugs' should be intensified, not diminished!

Daftly, but somewhat predictably, the latest leader of the Tory Party, Michael Howard - who of course has never lit up a spliff in his life - has pledged to reverse the policy. Obviously, Howard can feel the warm glow of disapproval from 'Middle England' over the new cannabis laws - and the allure of potential votes. We shall see in due course whether this was a wise assessment.

In order to dispel the "confusion" surrounding last week's changes to the cannabis laws, the home office launched a £1 million-pound advertising campaign designed to promote the "one simple message" - cannabis is harmful and remains illegal (so almost 'just say no' then?). This campaign has involved the distribution of 2.5 million leaflets and large adverts in the national press proclaiming: "Cannabis is still illegal - the police can arrest you"; and emphasising: "You will be arrested if you are aged 17 or under".

In addition to the literature and the ads, the government has produced radio adverts targeted specially at "the kids" - and, if the content of the ads are anything to go by, the home office doyens clearly think that this section of the population suffer from retarded development. In fact, the general tone of these ads were so patronising that they ended up being comical - indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were listening an extract from an episode of Chris Morris's great surreal-flavoured TV series, Brass eye.

Foolishly attempting to speak to 'yoof' on their own terms, the government got obviously hard-up actors to intone a series of supposed slang names for cannabis. Calling on young adults to visit the government's "Frank" education website on drug misuse/abuse, a woman actor intones: "Marijuana, ashes, African, bazooka, blonde, blue sage, bud, broccoli, brown, buddha, bullyon, cheeba, Colombian, Don Juan, hash, J, jive stick, jolly green, kiff, killer, Panama gold, parsley, roach, straw, wheat, Texas T, locoweed. Call it what you like; just don't call it legal." Then we get a male voice which solemnly reminds us that cannabis is "still illegal, still harmful, and you can still get a criminal record that may affect your future career or holiday plans".

Excuse me - "jive sticks"? "Don Juan"? "Bazooka"? "Broccoli?" Aren't roaches the small bit of rolled cardboard placed at the smoking end of the spliff to prevent you from swallowing tobacco, not the actual drug itself? Even worse - or more hilariously, depending upon your point of view - each word has been dramatically clipped, so that the next one begins just before its predecessor ends, creating a juddery alien effect - almost exactly like the famous drug episode of Brass eye, where Morris's over-the-top style of delivery is used to used to demonstrate how appalling ignorant those who agitate loudest for a 'war on drugs' actually are. Morris even managed to get David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West, to film an elaborate video warning against the dangers of a fictional eastern European drug called "cake" - which purportedly affects an area of the brain called the "Shatner's bassoon". Unbelievably, Amess went as far as to ask a question about "cake" in parliament. With its £1 million-pound advertising campaign, the government has managed a brilliant self-parody - and revealed its utter vacuity into the bargain.

David Blunkett has his supporters of course. The Guardian proposed that a good policy would be "to allow experts - medics, pharmacologists, treatment specialists - to place drugs into the three categories of harmfulness that the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 set out. This is the road which, to his credit, the home secretary is following" (January 24).

Presumably then a self-appointed expertocracy should preside over the UK's drugs laws - not very reassuring, seeing the complete hash they made of it in 1971. Interestingly, the current chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Sir Michael Rawlins - also a professor of pharmacology at Newcastle University - has admitted that the "experts" are not always to be trusted. Commenting on the original 1971 reclassification decision, he said: "The basis on which it did it nobody knows. The records do not explain why. The basis on which any of the things were classified is obscure from reading the minutes. They won't tell you."

In other words, the 'war on drugs' was not launched on the basis of science and rationalism, but was a political decision shaped by the interests and concerns of the British ruling class. Not very far away in the United States, a whole generation had been traumatised, and simultaneously radicalised, by the horrors of the imperialist war in Vietnam and the continuing - sometimes heroic - fight for civil rights. Rebellion was in the air, revolutionary sentiment in the wings. Inevitably, this emerging 'counter-culture' spread even to stodgy old imperial Britain with its monarchical pomp-and-circumstances and Carry on films. Alarmed, 'official' Britain needed a crackdown on the 'children of 68'.

Recently released official government papers show how this desire by establishment forces to launch a 'war on drugs' impacted on the modern-talking Harold Wilson government - which, we must not forget, was regarded in some circles as a dangerously subversive administration with distinctly communist leanings (certainly the view taken by the likes of Lord Mountbatten, so beloved by his nephew, Prince Charles). These state papers confirm that there was a fierce tussle between the 'students' and non-students in the cabinet over cannabis and drugs classification in general. The outcome was that the ascendant 'student' faction was on the verge of getting the then home secretary, Jim Callaghan, to introduce Blunkett-style reforms which, in the words of the cabinet minutes, would embody the view that "a sharp distinction between the penalties for possession of cannabis and heroin would discourage users of cannabis experimenting with the more dangerous drug". However, the plans were leaked to The Guardian and, collapsing under the weight of establishment and press fury, Wilson gave his blessing instead to a maximum five-year sentence for cannabis possession and an unlimited fine - draconian sanctions which remained unaltered until last week.

In other words, the battles that raged around drugs in this period were a debate about the degree of social control which the UK state and its multifarious agents can and should exert over its subjects. What was true in 1970-71 remains true in 2004. Clearly, the recent hullabaloo over cannabis reclassification has served perfectly to expose the fundamentally irrational nature of this 'war' - indeed, it illustrates how the whole debate around drugs in general more often than not generates a sound and fury that normally signifies ignorance and prejudice.

Take cannabis specifically. Here is a drug that millions of people take on a regular basis - it is estimated that some 50% of young adults enjoy the recreational smoking of cannabis. Are all these people plunged into a Trainspotting-type hell when they light up? Yet in the process of policing the absurd and anti-social drugs laws, each year there are 300,000 stop-and-searches and some 90,000 people are arrested - and effectively turned into criminals. Their offence? The heinous act of enjoying themselves and not getting into a lager-fuelled fight on a Friday night. The double irony of course is that if alcohol and tobacco were made illegal from midnight tonight and reclassified accordingly, then they could well find themselves falling into 'class A' (imagine the number of police and prisons you would need).

However, far from reducing, if not actually resolving, the contradictions and tensions that underpin the UK's drugs laws, Blunkett's 'rationalisation' has only helped to exacerbate them. The Police Federation, for instance, has highlighted one of the most obvious absurdities of the new law - why is cannabis using still an arrestable offence, unlike virtually all the other 'class C' drugs? When was the last time you heard of the police raiding a 'valium den', or arresting an over-zealous body-builder who had indulged in too many anabolic steroids?

On January 30 there was a stand-off in Leith, Edinburgh, between the police and drugs campaigners/users - including leading comrades from the Scottish Socialist Party - outside the Purple Haze cafe, a self-declared 'non-smoking' private cannabis club. Three police officers stood outside the cafe doors handing out letters which 'clarified' the new law to those eager to sign up for membership (including comrade Tommy Sheridan). By the end of the day three people had been arrested, two of them on the grounds that they had been "seen smoking cannabis on the premises". Afterwards, the cafe's owner, Paul Stewart, declared that his intention had not been to sell cannabis - only to highlight what he claimed to be the different ways the new drugs laws were being implemented on different sides of the border.

Communists call unequivocally for the immediate legalisation of cannabis - not its "decriminalisation", as recommended by The Observer (January 25) and others. There should be absolutely no stigma attached to the taking of cannabis. But we also call for the legalisation of all drugs - 'soft', 'hard' and all ports of call in between. This is the real 'right-on' and non-confused, non-mixed message to send out.

In this respect, the post-Purple Haze affair comments by comrade Kevin Williamson - the SSP's drugs spokesperson and self-appointed expert on biogenetics, anthropology and gender studies - were disappointing. Far from calling for the legalisation of all drugs, SSP policy is for the 'hard' variety to remain illegal in an 'independent socialist Scotland'. This side of independence, the SSP, in the words of comrade Williamson, is "calling on the executive, the police forces and the local authorities to create Scottish-wide cannabis-tolerant zones until our parliament has the powers to change the law" (The Scotsman January 29). In other words, the all-UK bourgeois state should be more lenient to Scottish users/takers than English ones.

As any serious examination of the subject quickly reveals, criminalising drugs and hence drug-users only exaggerates any potential problems tenfold - pushing users to the margins of society and into the hands of usually less than scrupulous professional criminals (or perhaps even worse, desperate amateurs). Self-evidently, it is the adulteration of drugs by so many profit-hungry 'pushers' which is one of the biggest causes of severe ill-health, damage and death. Legalisation would bring with it quality control, while at the same type putting the drug gangs out of business overnight.

Alternatively the state could continue to herd users into overcrowded prisons - true drugs free-for-all zones if ever there were any, where you could be taking almost anything (though probably not delicious Mexican wild cap mushrooms. fried in a light garlic sauce). An open, honest, non-punitive culture and society will produce a genuinely scientific and humanistic 'hierarchy of harm' when it comes to education about drugs - as opposed to the bogus science, pseudo-education and hysterical moralism we have to endure at the moment.

Drug misuse is a social problem that needs social answers. We have been swallowing, eating, smoking, snorting, etc psychoactive drugs since the dawn of humanity and there is absolutely no reason to believe that this will change in the foreseeable future - if ever. We need to humanise and socialise drug taking/using, just as we need to humanise and socialise all aspects of human and societal relationships.