Century of Struggle Fails To Curb Drugs

Century of Struggle Fails To Curb Drugs
Posted by FoM on March 30, 2000 at 22:17:56 PT
By Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor
Source: Electronic Telegraph
In the 19th century, you could walk into a pharmacist and buy opium as easily as aspirin today.The dispensation of laudanum, especially as a painkiller, is charted in many Victorian novels. Queen Victoria used it in tincture form to ease period pains. It was possible to buy any drug until early in the last century. But by 1908, curbs had been introduced on sales of cocaine. 
In 1912, the International Convention on Opium limited its manufacture and trade and its sale was prohibited to unauthorised persons.The First World War encouraged our political masters to believe that a popular predilection for intoxication, through narcotic drugs or alcohol, must be controlled. The Defence of the Realm Act 1916 introduced controls on possessing cocaine and the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 put controls on the importation and manufacture of cannabis.In 1928, an international convention on narcotics, limited the use of drugs such as morphine and cocaine to medicinal use. Cannabis, though not a narcotic, was included in the convention and its possession and cultivation made illegal. It was not until the Sixties that possession of LSD and amphetamines was restricted. By the Seventies, cannabis was unavailable on precription.Today, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 remains the legal template for defining the social disapproval and addictive nature of certain drugs. It introduced three classes of controlled drugs, with penalties for possession and trafficking linked to their classification. Class A includes heroin, ecstasy, LSD and cocaine; Class B cannabis and amphetamines; and Class C anabolic steroids.The Runciman committee that reported this week after a two-year investigation into drugs laws said cannabis was less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. Sir Bernard Williams, the philosopher, who took part in the review, said that if it had included the two legal "drugs", alcohol would be Class A and tobacco Class B. Cannabis would be Class C.The Runciman report: "Cannabis is not a harmless drug: there are physical and psychological risks to the individual from regular, long-term cannabis use and there are dangers to others from the impairment to motor and cognitive functioning from intoxication. But by many of the main criteria of harm - mortality, morbidity, toxicity, addictiveness and relationship with crime - it is less harmful to the individual and society than any of the other major illicit drugs, or than alcohol and tobacco. The present law on cannabis produces more harm than it prevents."The committee wanted to "depenalise" the possession of cannabis. It would no longer be an offence punishable by imprisonment, though few, in practice, are sent to jail. Possession would still be a crime, but punishable by cautions, fines or warnings. Possession would no longer be an arrestable offence. The police said this could hinder their investigations of other crime.The committee said the balance of advantage was in favour of reducing cannabis possession at least to a misdemeanour because the law was "very expensive of the time and resources of the criminal justice system and especially of the police". The report said: "It inevitably bears more heavily on the young people on the streets of inner cities, who are also more likely to be from minority ethnic communities, and as such is inimical to police community relations. It criminalises large numbers of otherwise law-abiding, mainly young people, to the detriment of their future."Would not the effective removal of cannabis from the criminal law send the wrong message to young people who might be drawn to a life of drug-taking? The committee said: "The most dangerous message of all is that all drugs are equally dangerous. When young people know from their own experience that part of the message is either exaggerated or untrue, there is a serious risk that they will discount all of the rest."The report proposed reducing the penalties for possession of ecstasy and LSD and for tougher action against traffickers, but cannabis use was its main concern. The logic of the report was that cannabis should be legalised. But, apart from suggesting medicinal use without penalty, the committee avoided this recommendation.Lady Runciman said it was circumscribed by international conventions preventing signatories from legalising banned drugs. But there was scope, as in Holland, for keeping cannabis illegal while creating a regulated market for small-scale supply. The report ducked the biggest question: would the appalling levels of criminality surrounding the supply of narcotic drugs be eradicated if they were legal?Issue 1771 - Friday 31, March 2000  Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2000. Related Articles:Rebuff for Drugs Reform Let's Go Dutch? Think-Tank Says Relax Some Drug Laws in Britain: Special Report Museum of Substance - Salon Magazine High Spots in History - U.K. - BBC Museum Tribute To The War on Drugs - St. Petersburg Times
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