After ten years of campaigning for the decriminalisation of Britain's most widely available drug, the Independent newspaper has decided to come clean. In dramatic fashion, its 18 March front page announced an apologetic U-turn over its position on the legalisation of cannabis.
Many of us recall their 1997 campaign: 'Today, the Independent on Sunday calls for personal use of cannabis to be decriminalised…the paper's campaign will continue until the law is changed and possession of marijuana [cannabis] is no longer an offence'.
The Independent is a respected broadsheet and its editors carry social and political clout. So, although its campaign wasn't entirely successful – cannabis for personal use has never been formally decriminalised – there is no doubt that it did do immense damage. Despite clear warnings from a variety of professional bodies including its own Drugs Czar, the Government eventually went ahead and downgraded cannabis into a Class C drug. At the time, the Independent happily received credit for forcing this reclassification; and ever since then, millions in the UK have happily received the message that cannabis is harmless.
What has caused the editors of the Independent to make such an apology? Apparently, it comes on the back of statistics showing that the number of people requiring treatment after using cannabis has almost doubled over the last two years. They also claim that things have changed, that modern-day skunk is so much more dangerous than the 1990s' brands. And they plead ignorance – their retraction headline: 'If only we had known then what we can reveal today…' – citing evidence about the danger of cannabis that was published in the Lancet later the same week.
In today's society where admission of error is often perceived as a sign of weakness, it was refreshing to read the Independent's apology. However, their plea of innocence on grounds of ignorance is both saddening and unconvincing. In the last issue of Triple Helix, psychiatrist Dominic Beer pulled together very convincing evidence – dating back to five years before their campaign began in 1997 – that cannabis most definitely is harmful to the mental health of thousands of UK citizens, most especially young people.