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Living under prohibition

millions of perfectly normal people use cannabis
Cannabis users protesting in London in 2002

If you are one of the millions of perfectly normal, well adjusted people who use and enjoy cannabis in the UK and who never do anything to hurt anyone else, it may come as a surprise to you to learn that you're a criminal. Indeed, in theory at least, you run the risk of penalties greater than those for rape or violent assault if you share cannabis with someone else.

The problem is a law called "The Misuse of drugs act" or "MoD act" which you can read here.

The aim of the law is to "control" various drugs including cannabis. The method of "control" the law uses is called "prohibition", making it an offense to produce (cultivate in the case of cannabis), trade in, possess or use these substances.

Hence, like it or not, your government is fighting a "war on drugs", where you are the enemy. Interestingly, the type of "control" prohibition produces ensures there is in fact no control over the sale or distribution of illegal drugs, but more of that later.

How did this happen?

Cannabis is not a new thing, mankind has known and used this plant for thousands of years as our History section shows, the problems are all fairly recent and very much the result of mostly western governments, indeed it has to be said the main culprit is the USA with our government following along in a blindfolded brown nose sort of way.

The cannabis laws can screw you up

Talk to Frank - the government run anti drugs campaign - recently issued these warnings of the dangers cannabis users will still face because of the law, even after reclassification.

Thinking about that brilliant job you've always wanted?
Some employers won't take people with drugs convictions

Pleasant dreams of faraway places? Planning a trip Downunder? A trip to New York?
Some countries might not let you in if you have a drug conviction

Cannabis is still illegal - the law is still dangerous
The government on drugs
Soapbar warning


This MoD act is based on "The Single convention", a UN treaty drawn up in 1961 which sets out to prohibit drugs which "have a high potential for abuse". By "high potential for abuse", it actually means any non-medical use of the substances, such as recreational and spiritual, as well as to seek escapist oblivion. Yes, using cannabis to chill out and listen to music is "abuse" in the eyes of the law.

In addition, cannabis was prohibited from being used as a medicine, despite having a long history of being used as such. It also effectively closed down the hemp industry, thus freeing up the markets for cotton, but that's another story, or perhaps it isn't...

But what about the legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco?

Interestingly, the Single convention (and hence the MoD act) didn't include alcohol or tobacco, which of course were the drugs used by the white, Christian western governments who drew up the original UN convention. Protests from countries such as India, where cannabis was a very established part of the culture and religion, were simply ignored. In any case, alcohol prohibition had already been tried in 1920's America (for puritanical, not drug control reasons) and it had failed badly, leading to all sorts of problems such as:

  The mob supplied illegal booze
The price went up, fueling organised crime
The number of people addicted increased
The type of addiction became chaotic
The supplies became uncertain with badly made "moonshine"
Rates of blindness and insanity (caused by 'wood alcohol' in moonshine) increased
Children got caught up in the trade and many became addicted
People gathered in unlicensed "speakeasy" venues where booze was freely available
Many people died from overdose and poisoning
Violence increased, including gun and gang crime.

If all of the above sounds familiar, it's because the same problems are happening today with all the illegal drugs, and for the same reason - Prohibition. The fact that some of the above, such as addiction problems and deaths, don't apply to cannabis is down to the relative harmlessness of the plant, cannabis simply can't cause these problems even under prohibition.

But it's in this mess that cannabis exists and has done for over 30 years.

So what danger am I in?

Well, an interesting question. When the MoD act was first introduced, the police went on the offensive, raiding peoples homes looking for even the smallest trace of cannabis. Many people were locked up for several years for no more than a blim. The result was to overload the legal system and it became impractical to continue. Over time the police came to issue cautions rather than pressing charges and increasingly they simply had to turn a blind eye.

Cannabis use increased massively in the 30 years 1971 to 2001, the law was utterly unable to contain this growth in popularity and, despite an attempt by the Conservative government in the mid-90's to clamp down by increasing the penalties, the law sunk further and further into contempt.


Hard-line Home secretary David Blunkett, who reclassified cannabis to class C in 2004.
 

So it was that in 2001 even the right-wing authoritarian Labour government had to make changes to the law - the first ever. Cannabis was still illegal but, as long as you're over 18 and not drawing too much attention to yourself, you probably might not have got arrested, and if you are the chances were that not much will happen if you touch your forelock and say sorry. Strangely though, if you were under 18 you (in theory) will be arrested, the law is usually applied in a stronger way against children than adults, so that was unusual to put it mildly. It was later quietly dropped.

However, in 2009 Tony Blair's replacement, Gordon Brown, reversed the move to class C and returned cannabis to class B, although the penalties were "special", in that warnings would be used for first offence and arrest is still unlikely.

To say the cannabis law is in a state of confusion now is to understate the situation. After the biggest change in the drugs laws ever, the government spent a million pounds on an advertising campaign to tell people nothing had changed, then changed it back in such a way as nothing really changed. Got it?

The governments strategy (if you can call it that) towards cannabis is followed in our section "The British government on drugs"

So is that it?

No, you're in more danger than that. As we mentioned above, the law sets out to control cannabis by prohibition. This means that, because the cultivation and supply of the plant are illegal, there is no control over it. Unlike with legal substances which are properly regulated, you've got no protection under the law whatsoever. It's a strange way to control something.

In practice this means that sometimes cannabis is supplied by organised crime, gangsters in it for the money and nothing else. Getting mixed up in this scene can and does lead people into big problems.

The most common danger users face is from polluted hash, so-called "soap bar", the most available form of hash in the UK is often badly contaminated, as we warn here

In addition of course, criminal gangs also supply all the other, far more dangerous and destructive substances in the same uncontrolled manner, and these guys would far rather you bought stuff like heroin or crack, because the profits are much higher.

Any more?

Well, because the market for cannabis is totally unregulated you've got no real idea of what you're buying. Apart from the risk of contamination, strengths can vary from mild to powerful. If this were alcohol it would be like not knowing if you were getting a beer or a vodka. Fortunately cannabis is far less dangerous than alcohol in that it's not a poison and you can't overdose, but for a minority of vulnerable people this can cause big problems. As always in this sort of situation there is nothing to protect children or vulnerable people because of the policy of prohibition.

So what can we do?

Over the years there have been many attempts to get the law changed, but so far only one thing has worked - contempt for the law. It's only because the law had become unenforceable that the 2004 reclassification happened at all and, sadly, it seems the only way it will change further will be because more and more people continue to ignore the law.

The result of all this law breaking of course is a double edged sword: One the one hand, the public is getting familiar with cannabis. Gone are the days when admitting you've used it would cause outrage. The more this happens the less respect there will be for the law and the more likely that further change will have to happen. On the other, less respect for the law is unlikely to be focused on simply the cannabis laws, leading to a loss of respect for the police and thus to more draconian laws, this is already happening.

In the meantime, be careful. Learn about cannabis, what it is, what the hazards are to avoid and what the possible dangers of using it are. This is one of the main functions of UKCIA, we have perhaps the biggest library of information about all aspects of the plant that's accessible by the public.

The possible dangers are:

1: Problems with the law.

Keep your head down, and don't get into trouble. Having said that don't hide because using any drug in secret can lead to big problems. So be as open about your cannabis use as you can and always be prepared to argue your corner. Above all never behave like a criminal, if you do, you'll be treated like one.

2: Business problems with dealers

Never borrow from dealers - that's the first and most important rule. Beyond that, try to buy only from people you know and trust. It's best if you can to find someone who grows it themselves (this is getting easier) as that way you at least know what you're getting.

 

Always be polite when dealing with the police

Although it may mean more trouble with the law, the best solution is to grow it yourself, grow kits are widely available now (many growshops are listed in our contacts database) and although it's not quite a lazy mans hobby, growing good quality cannabis isn't that hard, see the, do remember though that growing cannabis is illegal and may be classed as dealing, so don't grow more than you need.

3 Polluted supplies

In the UK this mostly means rip-off "Soap bar", made by pressing low quality cannabis with stuff to bulk it out but it can also mean herbal cannabis which has been sprayed with weedkiller by police authorities engaged in eradication programmes. Sadly, the government doesn't care if it's war on cannabis kills people, you are the enemy remember. These days even grass is often polluted so it's safest to buy from friends who grow their own, or to grow it yourself, but do rememeber it's very illegal to do so.

4: Smoking and tobacco

Probably the biggest health risk for the vast majority of users is the way cannabis is used - smoked in joints mixed with tobacco. There's no need to do this and the fact that it is still the normal way to smoke is probably down to the lack of information caused by prohibition. See UKCIA Toke pure and also our Culture section How to smoke cannabis and how to eat cannabis

5: Harm from using cannabis

For a long time the legalisation campaign insisted cannabis was "the harmless herb", whilst the government insisted it was the first step to needles in the eyeballs style drug addiction. The truth, of course is somewhere in between and much nearer the harmless herb than the needles in the eyeballs. On the whole cannabis is a pretty safe substance if used in a safe way, in moderation by adults. See UKCIA risks section for more information.

Is there nothing I can do?

There are several campaign groups around the country you can join, but these days the old campaign is pretty well burned out. The most effective drug law reform campaign in the UK now is Transform who campaign for a total review of the drugs laws, not just cannabis.

And of course, help UKCIA to spread the word. Join in the debate on our forum and follow the Newsblog

But most of all, be informed, use the information on UKCIA to counter the lies put out by the government and its prohibitionist friends.

Knowledge is power and it's the one thing the prohibitionists fear most. Welcome to UKCIA.

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