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Liz Malone and Jennie Bristow tested the air at the big London demonstration demanding that cannabis be decriminalised

Free the weed... but at a price

Cannabis, it seems, is cool again. The demand for the legalisation of the drug is growing, attracting the support of numerous celebrities, at least

one national newspaper (Independent/Independent on Sunday) and, until she was pulled into line, the interest of at least one member of the New Labour cabinet (Clare Short). On Saturday 28 March an estimated 15 000 people marched through London calling on the government to 'Free the Weed' and allow them to buy and smoke cannabis without fear of arrest or prosecution.

The fact that supporters of decriminalising cannabis are prepared to make a stand in support of a personal freedom looks like a welcome change from the pattern of our times, when the public demand is more usually for bans and further restrictions on what we can and cannot do. Yet the kind of freedom which the 'Free the Weed' lobby supports often seems qualified.

In the run-up to the London march, we heard supporters of decriminalisation adopting a rather self-righteous tone, talking about the drug as a special case for freedom: unlike cigarettes, they would say, smoking cannabis has medical benefits; or unlike getting drunk on alcohol, some suggested, getting high on Weed makes people less aggressive, not more.

Where do these arguments leave the case for personal freedom on other issues that cannot be posed in such a virtuous, medically correct kind of way? Following the fashion for mini-surveys, we interviewed 100 of the London marchers to find out how those campaigning to 'Free the Weed' felt about the wider issue of personal liberties in our increasingly unfree age.

When we asked why they felt so strongly about decriminalising cannabis, 33 per cent plumped for 'freedom of choice' - a good start. Yet when we probed a little further, freedom of choice appeared to apply more to cannabis than it did to many other things we might choose to do. Whereas smoking cannabis was OK because it was said to be 'safe', other choices were viewed more ambiguously, again on safety grounds.

For instance, take other recent controversies over the need for government regulation - alcopops, smoking and beef on the bone. An overwhelming 90 per cent of respondents drank alcohol themselves, but that did not stop 52 per cent of them raising concerns with the marketing of alcopops as a health threat to children. Although 67 per cent of the respondents were smokers, 45 per cent thought the government should do more to prevent passive smoking and the harm this might cause other people. Forty per cent of respondents supported the government ban on beef on the bone, generally in the interests of public safety.

The question of whether 'hard' drugs should be legalised brought a split response. Those respondents who thought certain Class A drugs should be legalised argued this on the basis of freedom of choice and more effective regulation of the drugs; those who thought the drugs should remain illegal argued that Class A drugs were different to cannabis because they were both addictive and chemical-based. The fact that cannabis is a natural, rather than a chemical, drug was considered very important in distinguishing it from other drugs.

Freedom of choice was popular when it came to pornography, with only 10 per cent of respondents arguing that pornography should be banned. But freedom to choose to hunt foxes was seen as a no-no, with no less than 80 per cent supporting a government ban on fox hunting.

So what does all this mean? Our random selection of 100 demonstrators believed in freedom of choice when it came to their own lifestyles, but a significant number also believed that the government had a role to play in protecting its citizens from making choices that could harm them. For many, freedom of choice seems to apply fully only to those lifestyle choices that are seen as safe. Particularly when other people were seen to be affected by somebody else's choice - for example, on the questions of passive smoking or alcopops - there was more support for regulation.

Freedom of choice also seems to apply only to those lifestyle choices which an individual personally finds acceptable. All our interviewees were demonstrating for the freedom to smoke cannabis, but many were quite willing to argue that the freedom of others to smoke tobacco in public places, to eat beef on the bone or to hunt foxes should be curtailed by the government.

There was no generalised libertarian sentiment among the majority of respondents: the view seemed to be that you could pick and choose those freedoms which you supported. Those respondents who argued that they supported the ban on beef on the bone because they were vegetarian, or that they had no opinion on this question because they were vegetarian, indicated to what little extent 'freedom to choose' was seen as a principle rather than just another lifestyle choice.

A powerful response to our question of 'why cannabis?' seemed to be that it was a good drug, imbued with certain qualities that set it apart from sinful habits. So interviewees argued that cannabis should be legal because it is less harmful than other 'legal drugs', such as alcohol and tobacco. Others said that cannabis should be used to alleviate medical problems (the march was led by disabled people).

One marcher, 24-year old Alistair, gave us a fairly typical argument about the close relationship between personal freedom and safety. 'For me it's an issue of freedom. I think it does a lot less harm than alcohol. I come from a family with an alcoholic father, so I know the damage it can do. Cannabis doesn't cause people to hit their wives and children.'

Perhaps it is not surprising these days that people should go down this road in arguing for the decriminalisation of cannabis. In an age when many are obsessed with avoiding risk everywhere from the car to the kitchen, it makes sense that, if you can argue cannabis is not only harmless but health-improving, then your argument will be much easier to win.

But - and this is a big but - the problem is that those who put themselves on the moral high ground often end up looking down on the rest of us. When the 'cannabis good' argument leads to the 'other things bad' argument, calling for restrictions on other substances which are not so nice and user-friendly, true freedom of choice goes out of the window. We are all for people having the freedom to smoke dope: but if this means having less freedom to drink, smoke, hunt and eat meat, forget it.

See Second Opinion by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Do you support the government ban on beef on the bone?
YES - 40%. Why?
1 Not enough information on the dangers of BSE
2 Just in case
3 There is a cover-up
4 I am a vegetarian
NO - 50%. Why?
1 We should have the freedom to choose
2 It's too late - BSE is already in the food chain
Do you think the marketing of alcopops is irresponsible?
YES - 52%. Why?
1 It encourages underage drinking
2 It is misleading, because children think alcopops are lemonade
3 Alcopops carry no health warning
4 Alcopops are responsible for more violence in schools
NO - 40%. Why?
1 We should have the freedom to choose
2 Kids have always drunk cider anyway
Do you think pornography should be banned?
YES - 10%. Why?
1 It is harmful to children
2 It degrades women
NO - 85%. Why?
1 Adults should have the freedom to choose
2 It's fun
3 Bans don't work - where do you draw the line?
45% of respondents said the government should do more to prevent passive smoking. When asked what the government should do, the most common response was that there should be more designated smoking and non-smoking areas
55% of respondents said the government should not do more
80% of respondents said fox hunting should be banned
19% said it should not be banned

What is the main reason why you think cannabis should be legalised?    
Freedom to choose   33%
Less harmful than other legal drugs   27%
Medical reasons   17%
It's natural   7%
It's fun   5%
To get rid of dealers   4%
To stop wasted police time   3%
It works in Holland   1%
Don't know   3%
Do you think the use of any of the following drugs should be permitted by law?    
Amphetamines (speed) 48% 47%
Ecstasy 54% 41%
Cocaine 43% 52%
Heroin 33% 62%

Demonstrating for legalised dope, London, 28 March

Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998

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