Drug Legislation – Time for a joint initiative

Greg Poulter says the involvement of the Manchester Law Society in a recent debate on the legalisation of cannabis shows that attitudes are changing. Greg Poulter is a solicitor and deputy director of Release, a national drug advice agency. Arguments over the effectiveness of our drug laws have been going on for years.

Those who have advocated a liberal reform have often been castigated as dangerous loonies or, at best, part of the chattering classes.

But in recent years central government has been prepared to enter the debate, with ministers taking part in the discussion process – although consistently arguing against reform.

But there are indications that the argument for reform of cannabis laws is gaining acceptability. Two recent events are illustrative of this process. The first, in Manchester – sponsored jointly by the local law society, local authority and local press – raised the issue of drug law reform during a debate.

Strong views were voiced for both sides during the debate, with the traditional view being led by Paul Hitchen of the Daily Express.

Hitchen was of the opinion that most drug addicts simply needed a bit of incentive to kick the habit and that the criminal justice system was just the agency to provide that incentive. This rather simplistic approach was challenged by both the other panelists and members of the audience, and the need for reform of the law was generally accepted.

By organising the debate, the sponsors were not endorsing legalisation, but for such august bodies to participate shows at least the will to discuss reform and, at times, an acceptance of its inevitability.

The second event, a conference sponsored jointly by the American Lindesmith Centre and Release (the drug charity) discussed the steps that would need to be taken in a post-legalisation scenario.

The conference included delegates from many countries including South Africa, Australia and the US, as well as many European countries.

As a UK delegate I found it disturbing to discover just how behind the times this country is compared with many European jurisdictions where the possession of cannabis has already effectively been taken out of the criminal justice system.

Delegates came from a range of professions and backgrounds but lawyers – both practitioners and academics – were well represented.

One academic lawyer from Poland put forward a well-reasoned argument showing the flexibility of international conventions in allowing reform of cannabis laws and explaining how those laws have been rationalised in Poland by removing the criminal justice system from most possession cases.

What emerged during the course of the conference was a clear understanding that there are models available for regulating cannabis post-reform which can be effective.

It was also worth noting (bearing in mind our own inadequacies in this area) just how effectively written constitutions have been used in many countries to protect individual civil liberties in this area.

Vocal calls for reform of cannabis laws have been heard for over 30 years. Only now is it evident that change is coming and that a more rational and effective approach will be introduced. The only question now is when?