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Cannabis abuse prompts irrational legislating

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So what could be found to keep the hysteria running long enough to get the law changed? A wonderful idea emerged.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told the House of Commons there were particular concerns about stronger strains of the drug.

Cue startling tales of "skunk", something 20 times stronger than the peaceful 'erb that we all used when listening to Bob Marley. Except, given that THC levels in that herb were six to seven per cent, we can't actually have something 20 times stronger, not in this universe at least: a smoke of 120 per cent THC really isn't possible. So those wilder claims were abandoned, but the basic concept remains; that because the modern material is stronger, it must be more closely controlled. Which is really rather odd, for we're all aware that alcohol comes in a variety of strengths and we don't see people drinking pints of whisky (the occasional soon-to-be-dead dare-drinker aside) nor people buying 25ml shots of beer. As indeed, we don't see people smoking the same quantities of skunk as they did of the lighter variety:

The ACMD held a special session in February and heard evidence that 80 per cent of cannabis seized from users was of the herbal variety rather than resin. Experts said the potency of homegrown herbal cannabis tended to be two and a half times that of imported resin. But they said users now often moderated their intake.

As indeed Frank, the Government's own drugsite, points out:

Clearly a stronger 'joint' (e.g. skunk or sinsemilla) may have more powerful effects, but users may moderate this by inhaling and using less.

That's not a problem either, then. So why are they doing this? Buggered if I know to be honest, but I do know what I'm worried about. You don't have to be a fully paid-up classical liberal like myself and adhere to JS Mill's dictum

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant...

in its entirety to see that the War on Drugs simply isn't going to be won in the way that the drug-crazed are currently trying to fight it. It was Milton Friedman, correct on this as on so many other matters, who pointed out that we simply cannot eradicate, by use of the law, drug use while still remaining in any manner a free society.

As an example of those freedoms and liberties we are losing think of this case:

Four years ago he walked free from charges of trafficking heroin after a jury delivered a not-proven verdict. But despite escaping a conviction then, George Buchanan was yesterday forced to hand over £200,000 worth of assets – including cars in the names of his wife and children – after a judge's ruling that they had almost certainly been paid for from his involvement in drug-dealing.

Something of a reversal in the normal course of such matters, don't you think? That even after you've been found not guilty they still take your money on the basis of an "almost"? Whatever happened to beyond all reasonable doubt? Thrown out because such cases are not heard as criminal trials, but as civil ones with that lower standard of proof. But that's not all, here's the next bright idea from our Jacqui:

Police will be able to seize high-value assets from suspected drug dealers as soon as they are arrested under plans to be unveiled this week by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary.

Yes, they'll take your house, your cars, your bank accounts, anything with a realisable value, at the moment of your arrest. No court case necessary at all, simply forfeiture to the State on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Even better, they won't leave you with enough money to hire a lawyer to defend yourself on those drugs charges:

More than 30 barristers from London, Leeds and Sheffield were approached to represent the offender, but refused because they felt the new fixed-rate legal aid fees of £175.25 per day does not justify the complex workload that would be involved. The case would have involved 6,586 pages of documents and a total of 4,548 transactions to prepare for an estimated six-week hearing. The offender, who has served a nine-month sentence for two drugs convictions, could not pay for the legal fees himself because his assets had been frozen.

That pretty much puts paid to the idea of innocent until proven guilty, the right to a fair trial and all the rest of that gubbins that our forefathers fought and died for, doesn't it? That's what I'm worried about, the leeching away of the very things that make us a free country in the face of this mass hysteria. It's decades since I last felt the urge to indulge beyond alcohol and nicotine, so the specifics of the drugs laws are an academic issue for me. But the abandonment of even the pretence of a fair trial should worry you as much as it does me.

There is one opportunity for humour though - a hefty proportion of the current Cabinet have admitted to the odd inhalation a time or two. Wouldn't it be fun if an MP were to ask Brown which of them would have had their lives improved by a five-year stretch?

One last thing - the Government did in fact ask its board of experts, ACMD, what they thought of the idea of upgrading the drug back to Class B. Here's the introduction to their report, published yesterday:

Dear Home Secretary In July 2007 you asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the classification of cannabis in the light of real public concern about the potential mental health effects of cannabis use and, in particular, the use of stronger strains of the drug. I have pleasure in enclosing the Council’s report. You will note that, after a most careful scrutiny of the totality of the available evidence, the majority of the Council’s members consider – based on its harmfulness to individuals and society – that cannabis should remain a Class C substance. It is judged that the harmfulness of cannabis more closely equates with other Class C substances than with those currently classified as Class B.

There doesn't seem to be much point in reading any more of that report, nor paying attention to it - since, obviously, no other fucker has either. ®

Tim Worstall knows more about rare metals than most might think wise, and writes for himself at timworstall.com, and for The Business, among others. He is a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute.

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