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A new leaf?

http://news.scotsman.com/opinion.cfm?id=92602004

Sun 25 Jan 2004
Ian Johnson and Murdo MacLeod
The Scotsman

ON Thursday at 4pm, history will be made. Scotlandís first cannabis cafe will open its doors to acclaim from a crowd of assorted Ďstonersí, ageing hippies and even a few trendy middle-class professionals.

But at 4.01pm an officer of the law will step in to bring an abrupt halt to the celebrations and arrest cafe owner Paul Stewart.

The former greasy spoon in Leith has been renamed Purple Haze and painted in the same colour in preparation for the day when cannabis is downgraded from a class B to a class C drug. But the reefer revolution promises to be short-lived, with Scottish police making it clear they intend to take a radically tougher approach than their colleagues south of the Border.

Across England and Wales, there will be a presumption against arrest for those found with smaller amounts of the drug for personal use, and officers will usually turn a blind eye to those caught smoking a joint in private places.

Several cannabis cafes have already opened, only being shut down when harder drug use has been identified.

In advance of the reclassification, advice handed out by the Metropolitan Police instructs officers in London to "presume against arresting people in possession of a small amount of cannabis... unless there are aggravating circumstances".

But in Scotland, such Dutch-style tolerance has been ruled out by First Minister Jack McConnell, and ministers will this week launch a £50,000 advertising campaign - ĎCannabis. Remember itís still illegalí - designed to get the message across that reclassification means very little in practice.

Tom Wood, deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, said the Purple Haze experiment would not be allowed to last for long. "If a cannabis cafe opens in this force area, there will be a police operation to prosecute those behind it," he said. "That will happen, and happen very, very quickly. Iím unequivocal about that.

"I have spoken to some of these people and a lot of them have genuine beliefs. I said, ĎI appreciate what youíre saying, but here is the law and in my role of law enforcement I will come along and arrest you if you go ahead with this.í"

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland said: "It is important to emphasise that possession of cannabis remains an arrestable offence. The Scottish police service will continue to report any person found in possession of cannabis to the procurator fiscal."

Ironically, the downgrading of cannabis by Home Secretary David Blunkett seems to have hardened the approach of Scottish police after five years in which, by common consent, they all but abandoned the fight against soft drugs.

That change began in the late 1990s as part of a hard-headed approach to focus resources on harder drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine.

One drugs officer told Scotland on Sunday: "No-one decided that we didnít care about cannabis any more. But where there is a choice, we will go for the hard drugs, which cause the most damage, rather than softer drugs."

Another experienced officer said: "In 99 times out of 100, people being brought in for cannabis offences have been picked up because officers were looking for something else. It would be very rare nowadays for police to target or investigate anyone solely because of a suspicion of doing cannabis."

The change in policy is borne out by the statistics on drug seizures: in 1998, Scottish officers captured £42.9m worth of class B drugs, mostly cannabis and amphetamines, and £2.3m worth of class A drugs; in 1999, they seized £16.4m of hard drugs and just £4.5m of soft drugs. New figures released by the Scottish Executive also show a significant fall in cannabis convictions in the same period: in 1999, 3,485 people were convicted in cases involving the drug; by 2000 this had fallen by 12% to 3,074.

This softer approach by those enforcing the law was also followed in England and was one of the major reasons given by Blunkett when he took the pragmatic decision to reclassify cannabis,

a move which exposed him to criticism on both sides of the Border.

Dr Ian Oliver, former chief constable of Grampian Police and now a United Nations consultant on drugs control, was scathing. He said: "The mixed message heís sent out is atrocious. In some places, kids think cannabis is a medicine and itís all right to use. I think Blunkett wanted to appear a bit liberal and as a Ďwith-ití Home Secretary."

Oliver welcomed the "sensible" decision taken in Scotland to carry on as usual. "Parents that smoked it in the 1960s think it didnít do them any harm, but the average potency of cannabis is something like ten times what it was then. Itís a completely different commodity. Itís a horrendous drug," he said.

Many health experts back that view. Robin Murray, head of psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, claimed up to 80% of all new psychotic cases in inner-city areas involved a history of cannabis use, and warned that teenage users were seven times more likely to develop psychosis, delusional episodes or manic depression.

An English coroner warned that cannabis was a significant contributory factor in about ten out of 100 deaths he dealt with, while others pointed to a study of 268 murderers in America, which found that nearly a quarter committed their crime while under the influence of cannabis.

The British Lung Foundation said three cannabis joints a day caused the same amount of damage as a packet of cigarettes, and the British Medical Association warned that chronic cannabis smoking significantly increased the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, bronchitis and emphysema.

Dr Bill OíNeill, the Scottish secretary of the BMA, said: "Long-term use of cannabis has damaging psychological consequences and it is well-documented that it contains high quantities of the toxins and carcinogens found in cigarettes.

"We acknowledge that it is not as dangerous as the likes of crack cocaine or heroin, but it is still extremely toxic. We want it made clear that it is still very harmful."

Defenders of cannabis agree there are risks, but claim they are smaller than those associated with alcohol and tobacco. Publisher Kevin Williamson, the Scottish Socialist Partyís drugs spokesman, said

: "The only way forward for those who want the law changed is to challenge it outwith the law. Itís completely irresponsible to criminalise someone for something thatís less dangerous than alcohol. In Scotland, weíre getting treated as second-class citizens."

However, Williamson admitted that cannabis smokers were not likely to be particularly responsive to a call to arms. "They are not always the best section of the public to get up off their backsides," he said.

Biz Ivol is perhaps the only person in Scotland officially allowed to grow cannabis and smoke it. She became a cause célèbre last year after she was charged in connection with allegations that she made cannabis-laced chocolates and sent them to fellow multiple sclerosis sufferers.

But after a series of delays the Crown finally decided to drop the case in July and it is unlikely that fresh proceedings will be brought, even though Ivol has continued to grow and use the drug, which she says is the only thing that relieves her symptoms.

"The last time I had any police in the house, I asked them if they wanted to measure how big my plants were," she said.

"They sort of looked and turned away. God knows how many police have been here over the last few months, but there have been plants growing everywhere and they have just ignored them.

"One policeman said to me, ĎI hate to say this to you, but I think youíve won this battle.í I had a bumper crop last year and I think I had every slug in Orkney round. They were the happiest and most laid-back slugs you ever saw. I had to get them off with a fire shovel."

Ivol, 55, who is confined to a wheelchair and needs help in order to eat, dress, go to bed and get up, is distinctly unimpressed by the decision to reclassify cannabis. "This just makes things even more complicated," she said. "I donít understand it. I donít know whether they understand it themselves. I donít know why they wonít just allow us to use it to relieve the pain. I have cannabis here in the house, I smoke a joint every night to cope with the pain and help myself sleep. What are they going to do to me?"

The answer is almost certainly nothing at all. Police, fiscals and judges can all exercise discretion over who to prosecute and MS sufferers do not feature high on their list of priorities.

Paul Stewart is hoping to follow in Ivolís footsteps and win a very public victory for all cannabis users when he opens the Purple Haze Cafe. With this in mind, he has done his best to minimise the extent of the cafeís illegality. It will not sell cannabis, users will have to bring their own. Purple Haze will operate as a normal cafe in the day and then turn into a private membersí club in the evening, when cannabis will be consumed, usually through a vaporiser which enables the drug to be taken without some of the harmful effects associated with smoking it.

Stewart realises he faces arrest and potentially up to five years in prison for knowingly allowing people to use cannabis on his premises, but wants others to take up the banner if he is shut down. "Weíre starting a new movement: the Scottish Cannabis Cafe movement," he said. "If the police do decide to arrest me, weíve got to make sure itís not going to stop here. Our aim is to legalise cannabis and weíre doing it for the half a million people in Scotland who are socially excluded by the ban."

And Scotland on Sunday understands that, even if Purple Haze is closed down, several other groups are planning to open more discreet cannabis cafes in the next few months. One source involved in the cannabis scene said: "If enough of these cafes open and stay open for long enough, gradually they may become accepted as a fact of life. But we know that any of them that become too well known will be shut down by the police.

"They have to be seen to take action, but everybody knows cannabis is not a big problem. People who smoke donít go around robbing people and breaking into cars to feed their habit. Smoking a joint is no worse than having a few pints and some cigarettes."

Stewart has written to Jack McConnell asking for Purple Haze to be used to trial cannabis cafes. But a source close to the First Minister said: "Everybody knows that smoking and being in possession of cannabis is illegal and Jack would hope the police would take firm and tough action."

On Thursday, he is unlikely to be disappointed.

RECLASSIFYING CANNABIS

ILLEGAL drugs are divided into three separate categories designed to show how harmful they are. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Class A includes heroin, ecstasy and cocaine. Until Thursday, cannabis is included in class B along with amphetamines, or speed.

When cannabis is reclassified as a category C drug, along with anabolic steroids, Valium and the date rape drug GHB, it will still remain illegal. However, the maximum penalty for simple possession will reduce from five years to two years.

But, as part of the changes, the maximum sentence for dealing, trafficking or growing the drugs will increase from five years to 14. It will also be an offence for the manager of premises to allow cannabis to be used there, with a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

The government has said that downgrading cannabis will help sell a "more credible" message to young people about harder drugs. Warnings that cannabis is as dangerous as speed, for example, are seen as counter-productive because of the number of people who take cannabis.

The government also does not believe reclassification will lead to an increase in the use of the drug.

The Advisory Council report on cannabis said: "The experiences in Australia, the Netherlands and the United States are illustrative.

"In each of these countries, a reduction in the penalties for using cannabis has not led to a significant increase in use."
 

© Copyright 2004, The Scotsman