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Roundabout route to the rehabilitation of cannabis; Increasing numbers of people are frustrated with being criminalised for using drug.

Byline: RICHARD EVANS

RARELY has a small, green herb been the focus of so much attention - cannabis divides opinion like few other plants.

The Victorians, for all their perceived prudery, took the view that cannabis was "no more worthy of banning than candy floss".

Indeed, Queen Victoria regularly used cannabis preparations to help ease her period pains.

The plant was first introduced into Western medicine in the 1840s by English doctors working in India, who used cannabis for pain relief.

It was found to be particularly effective in palliating the pains of childbirth.

By 1890, a report by the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission (IHDC) had concluded, "Ganja is neither appreciably harmful nor in any manner addictive."

Cannabis, marijuana, hemp and all other derivatives of the plant were thus entirely free of legal prescription in Britain until 1928, although in the 19th Century it was not cannabis but the far more potent opium that became the illicit drug of choice.

But an incident as close to home as Cardiff began to change perceptions of the weed.

In 1922 three sisters were found half dressed and unconscious in the company of Chinese musician, Yee Sing - better known as Johnny Hop - in a sealed room full of opium smoke above a Tiger Bay laundry.

By the time the story made the papers, the opium had been changed to "an Oriental love potion made from hashish, used to subdue white ladies."

In the police inquiry that followed, the words "opium" and "cannabis" were used interchangeably.

Despite the evident confusion over which substance had been involved, the British public began to fear cannabis.

Non-medical use of cannabis was first banned in the UK in 1928, after South African and Egyptian delegates at a Geneva Convention conference on narcotics persuaded the other countries that consumption of the weed caused insanity.

The idea was popularised by the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, largely through the work of the zealous head of the Narcotics Bureau, Harry Anslinger.

His public information film Reefer Madness was especially influential, though even President Franklin D Roosevelt confessed he found its storyline of a group of healthy teens going on a rampage of violence after sharing a single joint "absurd" and "unrealistic nonsense."

But in both the US and the UK, the prohibition continues to this day, though in recent years indications of a more relaxed attitude to cannabis have proliferated.

In total, over 8.5 million people in Britain have tried it at least once, and roughly three million use it on an occasional basis.

The rehabilitation of cannabis has taken a roundabout route.

The ban had the effect of sending cannabis underground, and the Beat generation of the 1950s, the hippies of the 1960s, and black jazz musicians throughout, claimed the weed as their counter-cultural emblem.

Ironically, Anslinger and his ilk can be argued to have to precipitated this process.

The Reefer Madness period of the establishment's attitude to cannabis brought the plant to the attention of far more people than would ever have been aware of it otherwise.

Although its production and import for recreational use were slowly beginning to pick up, most were simply ignorant of it, there being no such thing as a working class cannabis culture until very recently.

The wider social and political revolutions that dawned in the 1960s made that generation less tolerant of state intervention into what they saw as their own business - "Don't police my consciousness" became a popular slogan.

From being unaware of cannabis, to being told not to smoke it, to defiantly doing just that - it's a classic cycle, repeated throughout history by different civilisations at different times with different prohibitions.

And this was the method by which a plant seen until the 1920s as a mild but benign relaxant was turned into a potent symbol of anti-establishment rebellion.

And on the subject of madness, recent health studies have concluded that while excessive consumption of cannabis may potentially exacerbate the symptoms of those who already suffer from mental illness, there is no evidence that it can actually bring about mental illness.

But decades have past since pot's countercultural days, and the public perception of cannabis has moved on yet again.

Now a joint is seen as the perfect accompaniment to a glass of wine and some relaxed conversation at a million middle class dinner parties across Blairite Britain.

The revival of cannabis among students in the 1980s and '90s - although without the ideological baggage of their 1960s counterparts - has had a profound effect on today's society.

As those students grew up, graduated, got jobs, began careers, started families, and became the new Britons of 2002, they saw no particular reason to stop smoking.

The idea of cannabis as a "gateway" to harder drugs simply doesn't tally with the experience of millions of young professionals who enjoy challenging careers, fulfilling relationships, and all-round good, solid, middle-of-the-road lives while enjoying the odd joint on the weekend.

And increasing numbers of these people - many not so young anymore - are increasingly frustrated with being criminalised for it.

Softly, softly

POLICE in Lambeth, south London have been piloting a 'softly softly' scheme, where those caught in possession of small, personal-use quantities of cannabis are not arrested, only cautioned.

A sign of the times - after six months, 83 per cent of Lambeth residents have said they support the scheme.

In October the Home Secretary announced plans to downgrade cannabis to a Class C drug - the same class as mild tranquillisers and some anti-depressants.

The move is expected to be made this month, and among other things it will mean the police will lose the power to arrest anyone for cannabis possession.

All prosecutions will instead be carried out by court summons - as is the case with parking on a double yellow line.

It could well be that within another generation, out attitude to cannabis will be in line with our Victorian ancestors.

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BANNED: But a joint may be seen as the perfect accompaniment to a glass of wine at middle-class dinner parties. Non-medical use of cannabis was not outlawed in the UK until 1928
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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