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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 09:50 GMT
Should use of cannabis be decriminalised?

An opinion poll carried out for BBC News Online suggests that almost half of Britons over the age of 18 want to see the use of cannabis decriminalised. In the south of the country there is now a majority in favour of changing the law.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the greatest support for change was amongst the young in the 18-24 age group. And according to the European Union Drugs Agency one in ten British adults use the drug, or have done in the last 12 months.

But Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe is firmly opposed to any move that would make cannabis freely available. She says soft drugs could be a factor in many road accidents, and can also exacerbate mental health problems for users.

Should cannabis be decriminalised? Or should its criminal status remain? After all, we already have two legal drugs - alcohol and cigarettes - both of which cause huge problems for many users: why add a third? What do you think?

This Talking Point is part of a week of a series of crime specials. Click to read your comments on Yob Culture, Tagging, Miscarriages of justice, Organised Crime and Cybercrime.

I see no evidence that heroin use is higher than in the UK

John Backhouse, UK and Nederlanden
I work in Amsterdam most of the year, in numerous different companies. I see no evidence that the Dutch are less productive than, say, the British or the Americans. Furthermore, although everybody can buy cannabis in the Netherlands, I see no evidence that heroin use is higher than in the UK. Indeed, is it not a fact that heroin abuse is more prevalent in the UK than in Holland?
John Backhouse, UK and Nederlanden

I find it strange that no one has considered the benefits legalising cannabis would bring to marijuana-producing countries. It would give a legal income to poverty-stricken countries.

A vast quantity of marijuana smoked in this country is in its 'resin' form. This is reduced in strength by the addition of diesel, petrol, ketamine, henna and other substances more harmful than marijuana itself. Perhaps decriminalisation will prevent this? I agree with Mr Newdick, control is the way forward.
Alex Gibb, UK

There is absolutely no reason why the UK needs to retain the option of jailing people for cannabis possession. A small fixed penalty fine with no criminal record is the appropriate 'punishment' for such offences.
James McClean, UK

I regret my use of the drug due to long-term ill effects that have dominated my life since

Josh, UK
During my teens and early twenties I was a regular cannabis user. I regret my use of the drug due to long-term ill effects that have dominated my life since. The drug has exacerbated or caused a mental illness which I have suffered from since my teens. I would not wish my worst enemy the suffering I have been through and think that further research should be carried out on the ill effects of cannabis use. I know that there are currently clinical trials being carried out on its therapeutic uses which I am in favour of. However I feel that to let the drug be freely distributed and decriminalised may have more ill effects than good even though many of the younger generation can only see the recreational uses of the drug as a motivating factor to this debate.
Josh, UK

I am a regular cannabis user and have been for twelve years. I have a good education and hold down a very nice job in the computer industry. I have a normal family life - all the rest of it. If you met me in the street I imagine you would not notice any connection between what you saw and my cannabis use. I have never committed a drugs-related offence. I was given a speeding ticket once but I never drive under the influence of cannabis (or alcohol ) So what is your problem with me using it? The only crime I commit is to buy and possess cannabis.
Mike, UK

I have been a user since I was sixteen. I used it recreationally at first but when I had a car accident and injured my back I found it was the only thing that helped with the pain. I was off work for 4 years in a great deal of pain, and was on prescribed opiate drugs from my doctor. These drugs have caused me all sorts of problems with my stomach and because of this I now have food intolerances and IBS. I had never had any ill effects from cannabis in the short term after using it for 10 years and yet 4 years of using the prescribed prescription drugs have ruined my stomach. My father was angry when he found out about my 'abuse' but suffers from chronic arthritis. I told him about the positive effects and now he grows his own and controls his pain with it better than the steroids he was given.
Helen, UK

Remember prohibition in the US?

Andy Millward, UK
Interesting to see that the myth that one drug leads inexorably to others is still doing the rounds. As a non-smoker and non-drug user, I still think that the best way to control is to legalise. Remember prohibition in the US? Drink problems were worse in those years than ever since!
Andy Millward, UK

I wonder how many people know that the reason cannabis was first prohibited was because American politicians believed that it turned people into vampires and homicidal maniacs with the strength of ten men. Surely once this was disproved cannabis should have been legalised straight away.
Anon, UK

My own views on legalisation aside (which are longwinded and tortuous), Ann Widdecombe has always struck me as someone who would benefit from smoking cannabis. Dope heads have a tendency to spout rubbish when wasted, but nowhere near as much as she does straight!
Mark B, UK

Decriminalise it .... then tax it!
Martin, England

In some US states, the punishment for simple possession carries a small fine like a traffic ticket, while in other states a user could do a bit of a jail time and probation. The facts show that decriminalisation does not create a greater problem of marijuana usage in the states who deal only in civil fines. The only noticeable difference is the millions of dollars that these states save by not incarcerating people who might not otherwise be inclined to commit criminal acts.
Rob, USA

Cannabis will only be decriminalised for one purpose - to provide extra tax revenue for the Government. When they work out how to tax it, they'll decriminalise it!
Neal, UK

As the recently released study has shown. Cannabis is far from harmless, causing severe emotional and psychotic problems that are long term. Cannabis should not be legalised and it should be classed as a class 1 drug and not as a soft drug. Anyone caught using or with the drug should face a prison sentence and not just a slap on the wrist. We have enough problems with drunk drivers and now you want to introduce stoned drivers. People wake up.
Doug, UK

At the moment, we have no control over the market

Brian Milner, UK
The recent reports that cannabis is harmful to health, causes cancer and is addictive make me worried about this substance. If it's that dangerous, maybe it would be better if it was only available from licensed premises. Then we could shut the shop down if it sells to minors. Similar to the way we deal with those dangerous drugs, tobacco and alcohol. At the moment, we have no control over the market, and we can't label the packets as dangerous as we do with tobacco.
Brian Milner, UK

What are the current dealers going to do when cannabis is legally available? Hopefully they'll be running the coffee shops and other outlets, providing the same cool atmosphere, great cups of tea, entertaining and thought provoking conversation that they do now. With the wonderful richness and diversity of British culture, humour and creativity these places may become positive centres of community.
Weedhatch, CH

Once again people are latching onto the term gateway drug. Yes, people buying cannabis have to get it from dealers who often sell harder drugs. This is surely a question of the law being at fault. If you had to buy cheddar from a dealer would it be a gateway cheese?
James McKie, Sweden

I am disturbed that politicians can suggest that drug use is okay. Where I live the local politician is in favour of legalising cannabis. I feel that smoking, alcohol and drugs are all forms of self-abuse, and cause terrible health problems for the future of our children. It is our job to protect them and no matter what the W.H.O says about cannabis, how many long-term studies have their been?
Will Wigley, England

Gwilyn Ellis, I also live and work in Amsterdam and therefore feel I have to respond to your comments. The gentlemen who frequent the bridges in the 'dodgy' areas of Amsterdam I can assure you do offer me tulips but also the full range of hard drugs. With respect to your view on the 'orgies of crime'. My wife has been robbed 3 times and myself once, with the police admitting it was 'drug related' crime. Ask yourself, if there are no orgies of crime, why have the Amsterdam police set up a special team to combat crime on public transport and why the Chinese in Rotterdam took to the streets in protest against street crime?
Tony Wise, UK/ Netherlands

People need to try and enjoy life without the need of any chemicals

Jonathan, London, UK
Having seen many of my friends move on from cannabis to harder drugs I can't help but feel that legalising the drug will just cause harder drug problems to increase. I also feel as though we are giving in to what we have, as a nation, spent billions on to stop. We need to analyse the problem better. It's not just the rundown areas that are effected. I myself work for a City bank and many of my friends there are regular users of drugs on the weekend. People need to try and enjoy life without the need of any chemicals.
Jonathan, London, UK

It's long past time that it was legalised. Compared to the effects of alcohol and tobacco on the body, cannabis is the lesser of the evils. It's time for the Government to start treating people as adults and not as children who can't make rational decisions about their own bodies and minds.
Philip McArdle, London

Ann Widdecombe's comments are, once again, patronising and misguided. Millions of people choose to use cannabis and to continue to criminalise them shows just how myopic both the Tories and New Labour are. They should wake up to the reality and never mind decriminalising it, they should legalise it.
Andy Kneale, UK

It is ridiculous that it is illegal especially when there is such a shortage of police resources. I am somebody who has been involved with cannabis for over 20 years (as well as other drugs to a lesser extent) and yet I am a higher rate taxpayer running his own business. Also Mr Richardson I have been offered cannabis on the streets of Amsterdam but dealers who do admittedly also offer cocaine and ecstasy.
Phil, UK

It's a harmless drug so it should be available to people

George Malcolm, Germany
I'd like to see cannabis being decriminalised. It's a harmless drug so it should be available to people. I don't think I would like the Amsterdam coffee shop idea but I think adults should have the right to smoke it in the privacy of their own home and be able to buy it at all chemists.
George Malcolm, Germany

Oliver Richardson - I live in Amsterdam. If you think that the street hawkers you saw are anything more than the usual touts who approach foreigners in any large city and that they actually have any hard drugs to sell then you have only been a tourist here. The point is that Holland's (specifically Amsterdam's) tolerance towards cannabis has yet to result in the orgies of crimes and swathes of unmotivated youths that certain UK politicians would have you believe a similar stance would cause in your country.
Gwilym Ellis, Netherlands

The World Health Organisation released a study in March 1998 that states: "there are good reasons for saying that [the risks from cannabis] would be unlikely to seriously [compare to] the public health risks of alcohol and tobacco even if as many people used cannabis as now drink alcohol or smoke tobacco". However, this statement was left out of the final report, due to US government pressure. But that's not surprising, as the US government has been suppressing the views of scientists on this issue for decades.
Charles Davies, Australia

The answer is still yes. However there is no chance of this happening as long as alcohol and cigarette companies hold power over our governments through their lobbying.

A difficult one

Tim, Sweden
A difficult one. I think I would much rather meet a person smoking a joint on a dark street late at night than being outside a town centre pub at closing time. Yet it's that feeling that light drugs can lead to the heavy stuff that makes me want to wait and see. Would I want my children to try drugs: No.
Tim, Sweden

It should be decriminalised forthwith!!!!! How could the world not be a better place if people can get stoned without having to be scared of prosecution?
Zach, South Africa

The Shadow Home Secretary seems to ignore the incredible creative input hash has added to the UK culture. Would her rigorous stance have created one of the most vibrant media industries the planet has ever seen? Hash opened my eyes to what I wanted to do rather than what I was meant to do. For that I have an eternal debt of gratitude.
Chris Lyon, UK

People point to the development of drug-tourism in Amsterdam as a way of discouraging legalisation, but who are the tourists? The vast majority are Brits heading over for the weekend. What would be wrong with decriminalised cannabis in our own country?
Sarah Wojciechowski, Germany

Ann is right on one thing: cannabis is a gateway drug. People realise it is less harmful than alcohol, they use it (thereby coming into regular contact with dealers), then at some point when a level of trust has been built up the dealers offer them something 'a little stronger'. The solution? Stop cannabis users from coming into contact with dealers: legalise it.
Andy, UK

Re Oliver's comments about street dealers in Amsterdam. Yes, there are dodgy blokes hanging around the seediest parts of town offering coke and Es (I've been there plenty of times but have never been offered heroin) but who buys from them? No one.
Paul B, UK

If Ann Widdecombe's views on cannabis had any credibility then she wouldn't have been forced to drop her 100 fine proposal like a hot potato

Ben Smith, UK
If Ann Widdecombe's views on cannabis had any credibility then she wouldn't have been forced to drop her 100 fine proposal like a hot potato. Comparing cannabis to alcohol or nicotine is an argument that an average 12 year old can see through straight away; the fact is that in thousands of years of use, no-one has ever died from cannabis.
Ben Smith, UK

Currently there are 2 legal drugs, smoking and alcohol. The first is prohibited in many public places and smokers are often made to feel anti-social. In addition it cause many serious illnesses. The second, if taken in excess, is the cause of many horrific deaths. Until these drugs can be used safely I don't believe we can legalise any other recreational drugs.
Caron, England

The effects of cannabis on the user produces much less anti-social behaviour than alcohol. If it was legalised and alcohol outlawed there would be a huge drop in the fights and disruptive behaviour caused by excessive drinking. Think of the savings to the NHS and the police. The downside of this scenario is the increased cost of dental care and obesity management caused by giggling teenagers demanding chocolate........
Sarah, Ireland

In my opinion one of the worst aspects of the current debate on the legalisation of drugs is the apparent acceptance of drug use among middle class students, yet an unease with its use among the poor, the unemployed or indeed those employed in menial work. This idea seems to suggest that many people appear to believe that their own children will be able to handle the effects of drugs, as they themselves have probably done, yet those from a lower social or educational class will not. Maybe this is true, but if it is then it is not the drugs which are the problem, but the conditions that have led people to abuse them in a way in which the middle classes feel that they would not.
Andrew Bartlett, UK

What are the current dealers going to do when cannabis is legally available?

Oliver Richardson, UK
I agree with Anne Widdecombe on one point. What are the current dealers going to do when cannabis is legally available? They are going to sell something else. This will probably be a hard drug, and they will target their current market. Some people point to Amsterdam as a paragon of drug tolerance. I've been there. People don't come up to you on the street and offer cannabis; there are shops for that. They offer you cocaine and heroin instead.
Oliver Richardson, UK

Look at what alcohol and cigarettes do. Yet the Government who so deeply cares for our health and wellbeing enough so to fight a massive war on some drugs, has not banned alcohol and persecuted its users. This reminds me of what someone told me one time: perhaps the reason the Government does not want to legalise pot is because it makes you think. Alcohol makes it near impossible to have any rational thought, so it is perfect for a Government which seems to want complacent citizens who are willing to have their individual freedoms taken away one by one...
Anon, UK

It's time we decriminalised it for no other reason than to deny illegal profits to drug pushers. I'd put the same controls and taxes on it as we do for tobacco ... maybe a little stiffer. As nobody has come up with a better solution, this seems to be the only approach we have not tried yet. Let's give it a go!
Mark M. Newdick, USA/ UK

One of the best ways to improve education about drugs is to start telling the truth. For years now we have had people coming out with "all illegal drugs are equally bad" rhetoric. No wonder people get into heroin. They try cannabis, find it causes no problems and then think, "hmmm...all illegal drugs are equal, this stuff was harmless enough, let's try heroin then".
Simon Moore, UK

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See also:

01 Feb 01 | Health
Cannabis 'damages mental health'
17 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Widdecombe defiant on drugs
11 Oct 00 | UK
UK tops drugs survey

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