Zoe Williams
Tuesday March 29, 2005
The Guardian


Some statistics don’t do anybody any favours, and here’s one of them. Since it was reclassified from class B to class C at the beginning of last year, cannabis has lost its lustre, especially for the young.

This is bad news for those lobbying to reverse the classification. It’s bad news for people selling the drug, who are now caught in the classic Tory conundrum – if you don’t attract new blood, all your supporters will eventually die. It’s not even terribly good news for marijuana lovers, since nobody likes to see their poison of choice consigned to the dustbin of drug history.

Matthew Atha, director of the Independent Drugs Monitoring Unit, noted that the change in the law had had no effect at all. In fact, though, since the increase in regular users dropped to 0.5% last year, down from 45% in 1998, I’d say the legislation has had a very marked impact. It has made everyone lose interest. You might just as well have dressed this drug up in a sailor suit and sent it on tour with Geri Halliwell. It just isn’t cool anymore.

An intelligent observer of youth behaviour in relation to government initiatives would be able to deduce the following: people below 25, say, are counter-suggestible. I chose that 25 figure totally at random, and since I’m still quite counter-suggestible and don’t intend to change radically in the next couple of years, I’m going to amend it up to 35.

Thus, if you tell them things are dangerous, they will do them, and if you shrug and say “actually, it doesn’t seem to do too much harm”, they will do something else. Whole swaths of aberrant behaviour could be addressed with this in mind. Obesity, smoking, drinking, fighting, snowboarding and joyriding would all become terribly passĂ© if the government were to become their advocates, particularly if prominent members of the government were to lead by example and take up dangerous activities in a high-profile way. I rather fancy Alastair Campbell for this job.

Failing that, they could always start by decriminalising all drugs. There seem to be three main strands of argument for the criminal status of psychoactive substances. First, they’re bad for people. Whenever anyone suggests slackening the laws against dope, for instance, the antis are immediately full of statistics about how very much worse are its effects than simply making everyone feel a bit foggy and forget to turn off the heating when they go to bed.

You’d think that by now we’d have devised ourselves a sliding scale for legality based not on the damage you do to yourself, but the damage you do to others. Regular smoking would therefore be a class A (for its efficacy as a long-distance carcinogen), alcohol would be class B (it makes people fight and drive badly), heroin and crack would be class C (they make people steal things), cocaine would be class D, along with PlayStations and an interest in sport (they make people very tedious) and dope would weigh in somewhere closer to the bottom of the alphabet (it sometimes makes people quite quiet), unless mixed with tobacco, in which case it would scooch back up to A.

The second argument is that, the laxer the penalties, the more people will do something. This might work with speeding (in cars, not on amphetamines). But it does not seem to work with drugs. It’s possible that people only do drugs at all because the anti-authoritarian impulse behind law-breaking attracts them, but they are too decent to mug. That would be quite hard to prove, though.

Thirdly, there is the contention that people shouldn’t take illegal drugs because they thereby keep buoyant an industry based on the most scandalous exploitation – a position given new expression since the release of the Oscar-nominated film Maria Full of Grace, which shows the horrifying realities of being a drug mule.

But, clearly, the only reason drug overlords can treat their mules so badly is that they’re unregulated, and they’re only unregulated because the product itself is illegal. And frankly, even industries that are regulated don’t seem to be able to ensure that the workers at the bottom of their foodchain are treated an awful lot better.

These are all arguments that were rehearsed an awful lot a decade ago, but the debate seems to be steadily receding back to “Shall we or shan’t we put people in prison for having the odd joint?”. It’s hard to say how that happened. Possibly, the first pioneers for legalised drug use have smoked too much dope and lost interest. And if that’s the case, we can look forward to the next generation, registering almost no uptake of a dope habit, being very radical indeed.