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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 June, 2003, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Six Forum: Should cannabis be legal?
Six Forum: Cannabis
Francis Wilkinson, a former police chief constable and author of The Leaf and the Law answered your questions on changing the cannabis laws.

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    The Swiss Government is recommending to parliament the legalisation of cannabis, as well as the sale and production of small amounts of soft drugs.

    The government argues that the move brings the law into line with reality.

    Surveys have shown that nearly one quarter of 18 - 45 year-olds regularly smoke cannabis and it is widely available in big towns.

    The proposals would allow people to use, grow and sell the drug without being punished. If they go ahead, Switzerland will have one of the most liberal drugs-policy in Europe.

    Could the Swiss solution work in Britain? Is the British government's policy of downgraded cannabis the right way forward? Are there other models for controlling the use and production of cannabis?

    Francis Wilkinson, former chief constable of Gwent Police and author of The Leaf and the Law - a detailed analysis of current cannabis policy - answered your questions in the Six Forum, presented by Manisha Tank.


    Transcript

    Manisha Tank:
    Hello, a very warm welcome to you, thanks for joining us on the Six Forum, I'm Manisha Tank. The cannabis debate might be about to hot up again. The Swiss government is recommending to parliament the legislation of cannabis, as well as the sale and production of small amounts of the soft drug. With nearly one quarter of 18-45 year olds regularly smoking cannabis it's thought, in Switzerland at least, that it's about time the law should be in line with reality. So could such a solution actually work in Britain? Francis Wilkinson joins me, he's former chief constable of Gwent Police and author of The Leaf and the Law - a detailed analysis of the current policy on cannabis. It's all very interesting to see where this is going to go.

    We'll start with a question from Geoff Ma, who wrote in from Oxford: "Just because another country's doing something it doesn't mean we have to follow but is the idea in itself for legalisation for the sale and cultivation of the drug a sensible move?"

    Francis Wilkinson:
    The Swiss are famous for being sensible and I think they really are the first country to be tackling this problem in the right way. The Dutch, as everybody knows, have been tackling it in what I would say a half-hearted and rather dangerous way for years. They will sell at retail level and tolerate it but the production and supply of it through the backdoor of those cannabis cafes is illegal and plenty of crime occurs around that end of the business. The Swiss by getting cultivation in Switzerland supply in Switzerland and consumption all legal will solve the problem for Switzerland I sincerely believe.

    Manisha Tank:
    There was another e-mail, sort of along the same lines, Alan Petty in Durham: "If the law is seen to be useless and is disregarded by a large proportion of the population, such as with the prohibition of cannabis, then surely this only serves to degrade other more serious laws?" Perhaps what's being brought up here is, do you end up with a snowball effect, saying okay if we can say pass on cannabis will we do the same to other issues in the law?

    Francis Wilkinson:
    Well certainly each drug needs to be dealt with quite differently. Cannabis and heroine for example require entirely different solutions and cannabis and cocaine require entirely different solutions. But I don't think that we legalise cannabis because it's - there are a lot of people doing it. There might be a lot of people stealing from cars, it doesn't mean that we find that ought to be permitted. We legalise it because it's a harmless drug comparatively, it's less harmful than alcohol, less socially harmful than alcohol by far and it's less physically harmful than tobacco and less addictive than nicotine is. So there are - it's just an accident of history that puts cannabis on the wrong side of the law and we ought to try and put that right so that it's a socially legal drug, as well as a socially acceptable drug, that is for many people.

    Manisha Tank:
    Okay, well Francis I'm glad you brought that up because Steve has written in from Crawley, I've just got this e-mail in: "Alcohol and tobacco cost the government billions every year and cause millions of deaths. Cannabis hasn't killed anyone yet so why isn't it legal?" You said it's an accident of history.

    Francis Wilkinson:
    Well I think that's right, I mean I'm not going to say that cannabis - that tobacco and alcohol cost millions because actually they provide millions, they are sources of an enormous amount of tax revenue. That's one of the differences between them and cannabis. Cannabis, all the revenue untaxed goes into the profits of people who are involved in organised crime very often and that money will go to corrupt people, it will go to other places where violence and corruption are a way of life, places where cannabis is grown outside this country, it's harmful to the state as a whole to have such a large part of the economy unregulated and it's about time we put that right.

    Manisha Tank:
    A text and an e-mail for you. First of all the text, unfortunately it's anonymous, but someone writing in to say: "I've smoked dope since I was 12 and I'm now 28 and I have not gone on to harder drugs that people seem to think and I have not been in trouble with the law." Basically making the argument this person's been on soft drugs and it hasn't been a problem but Brendan MacLean wrote in earlier, an e-mail from Birmingham: "The problem is not and has never been what drugs you do, do you agree that the real problem lies in the reasons people take drugs?" And with that obviously there's a lot of criminal activity connected to this as well.

    Francis Wilkinson:
    I don't think there's a lot of criminal activity connected to users of cannabis, there's a lot of criminal activity connected to users of heroine for other reasons but that's not tonight's discussion. I don't think that most people who go on to hard drugs start on cannabis, they probably mostly start on tobacco or alcohol. But there are undoubtedly certain people who have addictive personalities, people who find it very difficult once they've started using stimulants to stop, whether it's cannabis or anything else. There are people who addicted to cannabis who would find it extremely difficult to stop. Indeed I don't encourage anybody to start using any of these drugs, none of them are good for you, cannabis does have adverse effects - they're not very serious - but I certainly wouldn't encourage anybody to start smoking anything.

    Manisha Tank:
    So let's get back to the debate in Britain and currently what it is the police have to undergo. Rich Clarke has written in: "How much police time in man hours is currently spent enforcing cannabis laws in the UK and what is the cost to the taxpayer for this?"

    Francis Wilkinson:
    I don't suppose anybody knows the answer to that question, I certainly don't. But it's millions and millions of pounds. And there isn't a lot of enforcement of straightforward possession of something which is for personal use. You've got to be a particularly awkward customer to force yourself to be prosecuted for that. But of course there's attention paid to the bigger end of cannabis supply and cannabis growing - it's illegal and the people who are involved in that very often the drug may be soft but they won't be soft and they may be involved in violent crime protecting their businesses against other people. And that's endemic in any arrangement which puts it outside the law. The sooner it's properly regulated and brought within the law, as the Swiss propose, the better it will be in this country. I see no absolute reason why that couldn't be done, of course it would be better if it were done across borders, it is a nonsense for material coming from Morocco to be illegal until it gets to UK waters and then become legally possessed. Of course we want to put that right by getting the UN to change the conventions to which all members of the UN, including the UK and Switzerland, are signatories. But at the moment, certainly on the basis of today's press release about drugs from the UN, there's no prospect of that view - of their view changing. So I do believe that the UK should try and take a lead in the EU in following the lead of the Swiss, who are of course outside the EU, but bring this into the EU so it can become more widely European policy.

    Manisha Tank:
    Okay let's just trace our minds back to the last time that cannabis really hit the headlines. Helen Okell's written in from London: "If, as reported, street crime dropped so dramatically during the decriminalisation trial in Lambeth should it have been extended?"

    Francis Wilkinson:
    I'm not sure that much of what happened in Lambeth is very different from what happens in the rest of the country. There are local variations as far as enforcement of possession of cannabis is concerned. Clearly police time is freed for other things if police don't bother about that but I think it was perhaps an important political relations exercise but I think in relation to reducing crime it's much more important to tackle the problem as a whole and not just to tolerate the end user having a puff on the street.

    Manisha Tank:
    Okay let's take this then to the social impact that it could have. Heather's written in, again from the UK: "Alcohol is legal in this country and people just drink more and more, if cannabis is legalised will that mean that it is acceptable and more and more people will smoke it even those who would not normally consider it?"

    Francis Wilkinson:
    Yes I think that is likely to happen, that there are people who are currently not trying cannabis because they are concerned of the consequences if they were found to have done it. They'll be people in some jobs where if it were discovered that they'd done it they might be at risk of losing those jobs because they've broken the law. So there will be a bit of a surge of use once cannabis is properly regulated as I think it will be in due course. But I think then that'll settle down, people will either like it or not, it'll become an ordinary part of life in the same way that tobacco is and people will choose either to smoke it or not, they'll have more freedom of choice than they do in relation to tobacco because cannabis is less addictive and we will have got far more in the way of social benefits than we would have lost in the way of health benefits. All the health authorities, the Lancet, the man who's written the most reliable book on the medical effects of cannabis, Leslie Iverson, are agreed that whatever decision is made about cannabis shouldn't be made on health grounds, it should be made on social grounds.

    Manisha Tank:
    So given some of the arguments that you had there you may be able to answer this question and this is - we're going on to people who are way against legalisation. Paul Seldon's written in from Chesterfield: "Cannabis should not be legalised under any circumstances. Drugs are damaging our society. If drugs were ever legalised would you agree it would be for the wrong reason and that reason is the government and its wishes to gain revenue from the sale of drugs?"

    Francis Wilkinson:
    Well there's no doubt that drugs are damaging society but they damage society in a whole variety of ways and I believe that it's the way we manage the drug problem that damages society. If we were to, for example, and the question has broadened things out slightly beyond cannabis, but if we were to supply heroine addicts with their heroine it is the one step that would fastest reduce the amount of property crime in this country. It isn't so much the drugs that are the social problem it's the way we manage them. The drugs won't go away. The only control we've got is to manage them more effectively. In relation to cannabis, a mild drug with no serious effects except on a tiny minority of people, is one which really ought to be managed better than we're doing it now. And that would overall reduce crime.

    Manisha Tank:
    Okay we're down to our final question and I'm afraid we have to be brief. But this one from T.B. in London: "In your view are politicians genuinely against reforming the drug laws in the UK or are they scared of harming their re-election prospects by potentially alienating the more conservative (with a small "c") voters?"

    Francis Wilkinson:
    Anybody who is a politician if they're scared of alienating their voters will be genuinely against reform. I think that's the answer - that it's time for politicians to take a clearer lead and like the Liberal Democrats argue as a party policy for decriminalisation, proper regulation of the supply of cannabis.

    Manisha Tank:
    Quite a few arguments there for us all to think about. Francis Wilkinson thank you very much for your contribution today.

    That's it for now you've been watching the Six Forum, the subject this time was cannabis. I'll see you again next time for another subject or another topic, bye bye.


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