Lest anyone think that science or reason guide modern cannabis policy, I present to you today’s announcement from British Home Secretary (and former pot smoker) Jacqui Smith calling on Parliament to increase pot penalties from a verbal warning — the current policy — to up to five years in jail.
Smith’s expected announcement (Watch the video here.) comes just days after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown — who has been afflicted with a severe case of “Reefer Madness" since taking office last June — raved that consuming cannabis can be fatal, and that strict penalties on pot are necessary in order to “send a message” to young people that marijuana smoking is “unacceptable.”
Ironically, the Home Secretary’s formal announcement contradicts the official recommendations of Britain’s Advisory Panel on the Misuse of Drugs, which released its own report today finding that pot lacks the potential health risks of most other illicit drugs, and that its use is unlikely to trigger mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.
It is the third time in six years that the Panel has demanded that legislators classify cannabis as a Class C "soft" drug, with minor, if any, criminal penalties. Unlike Smith or Brown, the Advisory Panel consists of experts commissioned to evaluate and determine British drug policies — hence it’s hardly surprising that their findings would be totally disregarded by British bureaucrats.
For those readers who have not closely followed Britain’s ongoing pot policy debate, here’s a brief history lesson:
In January 2004, Parliament downgraded the legal classification of cannabis from a Class B drug (such as amphetamines or barbiturates) to a Class C drug (such as anabolic steroids) — thus allowing police to issue verbal warnings to minor pot offenders in lieu of arresting them. Since then, the following events have occurred:
One-third fewer Britons have been arrested for pot offenses;
Marijuana use by those age 16 to 20 years of age has fallen by 20 percent;
Fewer than ten percent of Britons now report using cannabis — the lowest percentage ever recorded.
In fact, the current policy has worked so well that the British Association of Chief Police Officers has announced that they will refuse to waste their time and resources arresting minor pot offenders — regardless of what Parliament decides.
So let’s review, shall we? Gordon Brown wants to jail pot users to keep them from dying at the hands of weed — a stance so absurd that even the cops won’t go along with it. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith wants to jail pot users to keep them from losing their minds even though she herself smoked pot and is now one of the most powerful women in British politics. (Whether she is of sound mind remains debatable, I suppose.) The British Advisory Panel on the Misuse of Drugs thinks that Brown and Smith’s calls for reclassification are based on tabloid headlines in the Daily Mail rather than actual science, so they are dismissed as “know-nothings" by the very same people who, quite literally, know nothing.
And that, my friends, is how we decide cannabis policy in 2008.
Paul Armentano [send him mail] is the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML Foundation in Washington, DC. He is the author of "Emerging Clinical Applications for Cannabis and Cannabinoids: A Review of the Scientific Literature" (2007, NORML Foundation).