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Cannabis Should Be Legally Sold In Off-Licences

Cannabis should be legally sold in special off-licences
By Peter Lilley


THE Tories need bold new policy thinking - particularly on social issues - which will change perceptions of the party and appeal to those who shunned us last time. All five candidates agree on that. There is no better issue to start with than reform of our cannabis laws. It will be the acid test of whether they really mean what they say.

The present laws have palpably failed. Nearly half of young people try cannabis and more than a million people flout the law every month. The police have been increasingly reluctant to enforce the law and the courts less willing to convict and punish. Now in Lambeth the police have publicly declared that they will not apply the law at all.

When laws on the statute book are not enforced on the street, that brings the law, the police and Parliament into disrepute. We need to bring the two into line, one way or another.

In the final analysis, the reason the law on cannabis is unenforceable is that it is indefensible - especially in a country where alcohol and nicotine are legal. I have tried deploying the arguments for criminalising cannabis in discussions with sixth formers, students and, come to that, their parents in my constituency. Whether I convinced any of them, I don't know. But I invariably failed to convince myself. The arguments for prohibition crumble on close analysis.

The alleged health risks are either bogus or exaggerated. The Lancet carried out a thorough review of the research evidence and concluded "on the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill-effect on health, and decisions to ban or to legalise cannabis should be based on other considerations".

Defenders of the current law usually rest their case on the assertion that cannabis is a "gateway drug" that leads ineluctably on to use of hard drugs such as heroin and crack. In fact there is - as the Lancet study showed - no way that cannabis chemically predisposes users to move on to hard drugs. In fact, only a tiny minority of cannabis users - perhaps one or two in 100 - even try heroin.

Far from preventing people from moving on to hard drugs, the criminalisation of cannabis makes it more likely. Soft drug users are forced into the arms of hard drug pushers precisely because both cannabis and hard drugs are available only through the same illegal channels.

In addition, the attempt to demonise cannabis and virtually equate it with hard drugs may also have a perverse effect. Some users, finding that cannabis is not addictive and does not have the other characteristics that the "War on Drugs" propaganda suggests, may conclude that the dangers of hard drugs are also exaggerated.

The key objective of reforming the cannabis laws should surely be to break that contact between soft drug users and the criminals who push hard drugs. At the same time, we must restore respect for the law and focus resources on tackling the real problem of hard drugs - which can drive people to crime and murder.

I am a conservative, not a radical. Moreover, I want to restore personal responsibility in this area, not endorse the abuse of cannabis. So I have looked for the least radical changes necessary to achieve those ends. Simply reducing the penalty on possession for personal use, or ceasing to enforce it (which is what the Runciman report set up by the Police Commission proposed) will not achieve that end. It will still leave the sale of cannabis in the hands of the drug gangs.

Short of legalising trade in cannabis entirely, the only way to stop driving soft drug users into the arms of the criminals who push hard drugs is to license some legal outlets to retail cannabis.

Holland's so-called "coffee shops" (which allow consumption of cannabis on the premises and sales of retail amounts of cannabis) are the best known legal outlets. But there is no need to go that far. We could let the licensing justices give premises off-licences to sell retail amounts.

Such premises would not be allowed to sell alcohol, or sell cannabis to those under 18. They would lose the licence even on reasonable suspicion of handling illegal drugs. Cannabis would be taxed and carry a factual health warning. Cultivation of cannabis for personal use or for sale to these outlets would be the logical result, and some legal import of supplies would probably also be necessary.

It would be wrong to adopt any policy unless we believe it is right and in line with our principles. But no principle is more central to Conservatism than belief in freedom and personal responsibility.

One of the biggest handicaps that the Conservative Party faced during the election was the perception that its policies were negative and punitive. On crime and asylum seekers as well as drugs, Conservatism seemed to be about locking people up. It ought to be about setting people free. Nothing could more vividly dramatise reaffirmation of our belief in freedom and personal responsibility than to move clearly in favour of liberalising the law on cannabis.

Next to freedom, Tories stand for hard-headed realism. In recognising the self-evident failure of the attempt to prohibit cannabis, we will be addressing realities that other parties choose to ignore.

The section of the electorate where Conservative support was lowest was among first-time and young voters. And - on cannabis - it is hard to think of any other issue where young people's views and experiences are so out of tune with the policy consensus endorsed up to now by both major parties. A principled and sensible approach to this issue would make young people look at the Conservative Party in a new light. Moreover, it would reassure their parents that we have no intention of giving their children a criminal record for smoking the occasional joint.

I repeat: these factors should count for nothing if the policy options I suggest are not desirable in themselves. But they are right in principle, workable in practice and inevitable in the long run. Conservatives will be doing the nation, as well as themselves, a favour by taking them on board.

Peter Lilley was Social Security Secretary, 1992-97

----- ends -------

(also submitted as supplementary evidence to Justice and Electoral Select Committee (Human Rights Amendment Bill), and Health Select Committee, currently reviewing the legal status and thus the most effective health interventions for cannabis. This has been another Mild Green Initiative.)

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