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Decriminalisation.

Last year the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a highpowered panel including several former heads of state, concluded that the so-called "war on drugs" has failed, and that the world should consider decriminalisation or legalisation. In April, Russell Brand appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee's inquiry into drugs policy, giving a heartfelt view as a former addict. He argued for a pragmatic rather than symbolic approach.

'Being arrested isn't a lesson - it is just an administrative blip', he said. 'Instead we should address the social, mental and spiritual problems that lead people to taking drugs, to bring them into society, offer them treatment and neutralise the toxic social threat that they offer as criminals trying to fund their habit.' Wise words indeed.

Now the police are facing huge cuts, surely it's time to consider removing drug use from the activities considered as crimes? Decriminalisation doesn't mean allowing anything for anyone at any age. The legal age of 18 is generally accepted and legal substances from alcohol to glue are regulated pretty well. What a pity cannabis can't be added to the list, and legalised.

Around half of us try cannabis. The law on this is seen by the general public as a big joke. Yet police helicopters disturb our sleep with infra-red searches for cannabis growing operations. There's a whole legal conveyor belt, from teenage toker to jail-bird. Surely they're not worried that no-one would get up for work the day after legalisation? Life would go on as normal. It's not as if the legal drugs like alcohol cause the world to stop. Sure, alcohol is linked to depression, addiction, violence and liver disease, but even advertising it is considered socially acceptable. In fact, cannabis has been decriminalised in Portugal, Switzerland, Spain, some US states and Dutch towns. Experiments into its medicinal use are widespread and it has safely been part of human society since time immemorial.

So what would happen if cannabis was legalised? Well, for a start our children would believe us, and their school guidance, on the really dangerous drugs. Not "Just say No", but "Just say Know". They would be better educated. Do those in control really want that? It's hard to appreciate if you haven't got a foot in that world, but there can be a certain glamour in the sleazy world of crack and heroin. Dr. Gabor Maté, author and drug addiction specialist, points out that it's generally those who have suffered early childhood trauma who turn to heavily addictive drug abuse. Sadly their friends, who are the first to see them slipping into escapist oblivion, may well say nothing to adults. Why? Probably because their first teenage street-corner experiments with any drug was with cannabis - and with them. They're scared of getting advice precisely because cannabis is illegal. Result: the hard drug dealers cultivating new customers don't get shopped. The massive majority of cannabis users don't take hard drugs. In the shortsighted, tea party world of conformity Conservatism, a hypothetical link between cannabis and other drugs is the best reason to keep it illegal. In reality, it's the best reason to legalise it.

With legalisation, a whole section of society - teachers, parents, relatives, youth workers - could suddenly start telling the truth, instead of hiding the fact that they speak from experience about cannabis. There's plenty to discuss. The good and bad sides. There are dangers in cannabis use as with any substance; daily use is too much; giving it to others without their knowledge is never acceptable; smoking it is bad for the lungs. Without this honest discussion, there's only misinformation and glamorisation.

Here in South Yorkshire during the recession of the 1980s the police took a deliberately easy attitude to possession of cannabis. Maybe someone at the top decided that with the tension of high unemployment, a relaxed and stoned population wasn't such a bad idea? Perhaps society has now developed to a stage of maturity where we can consider with honesty and compassion how we treat drug use, why it happens, and whether we should lock people up for it. If you disagree with the ongoing criminalisation of the country's favourite illegal drug, please speak out.

To avoid smoking, which is always bad for the lungs, try vaporisers, which replace burning with steam inhalation. And by the way, a witty sign in one shop warns that they don't sell "real" drugs. Not yet.

The next meeting of the Sheffield Humanist Society will debate the case for drug legalisation at the University Arms on 6th June at 8pm, lead by Alex Martin of the University of Sheffield Atheist Society.

Next article in issue 51

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