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«Editors Sharon Rödner Sznitman, Börje Olsson, Robin Room Legal notice This publication of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug ...»

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A cannabis reader: global issues and local


Perspectives on cannabis controversies, treatment and

regulation in Europe



Sharon Rödner Sznitman, Börje Olsson, Robin Room

Legal notice

This publication of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

(EMCDDA) is protected by copyright. The EMCDDA accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of the data contained in this document. The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the official opinions of the EMCDDA's partners, any EU Member State or any agency or institution of the European Union or European Communities.

A great deal of additional information on the European Union is available on the Internet.

It can be accessed through the Europa server (http://europa.eu).

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This publication should be referenced as:

EMCDDA (2008), A cannabis reader: global issues and local experiences, Monograph series 8, Volume 1, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Lisbon.

References to chapters in this monograph should include, where relevant, references to the

authors of each chapter, together with a reference to the wider publication. For example:

Corrigan, D. (2008), ‘The pharmacology of cannabis: issues for understanding its use’, in:

A cannabis reader: global issues and local experiences, Monograph series 8, Volume 1, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Lisbon.

The publication is available on the Internet at:

http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/monographs/cannabis Cataloguing data can be found at the end of this publication.

Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2008 ISBN 978-92-9168-311-6 © European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2008 Reproduction is authorised provided the source is acknowledged.

Printed in Belgium Rua da Cruz de Santa Apolónia 23–25, P-1149-045 Lisbon Chapter 4 Soma, the Wootton Report and cannabis law reform in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s Keywords: 1960s – autobiography – the Beatles – cannabis – legislation – lobbying – protest movements – social protest – sociology – Wootton Report Setting the context This chapter provides a first-person account of a significant event in the history of cannabis policymaking in Europe: the publication of the UK’s Wootton Report in 1969.

There was some debate about whether to include this chapter in the monograph. The chapter is self-evidently personal in tone. Yet it is also interesting and anecdotal, and we believe the monograph benefits from its inclusion with few significant editorial changes.

However, it should be read for what it is: an oral history, told from an individual’s standpoint, with which others might disagree.

Recent literature has tended to play down the level of drug use in the 1960s. Prevalence statistics are not available, but cannabis use was likely much lower than today. A recent survey suggests that today’s 50-somethings exaggerate their participation in 1960s counterculture in order to appear cool to their offspring. Nonetheless, several decades on, there is little doubt that the high-profile celebrities of the late 1960s still hold cultural resonance in today’s global cannabis culture.

Nostalgia, anachronisms and the Beatles aside, Soma in many ways established the prototype for contemporary, often more fragmented, cannabis advocacy groups. It was a well-organised, erudite and media-aware pressure group. It had a talent for both publicity and linking debate to other contentious issues. Moreover, it was able to leverage the polarisation between political liberals and hardliners in the 1960s.

Similarly, today there is sometimes political capital to be won from taking an extreme view, be it for or against cannabis use (see Hall, this monograph). The Soma campaign thus remains relevant to contemporary debate on cannabis.

Soma, the Wootton Report and cannabis law reform in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s

In recent years, the nature of pro-marijuana activism and lobbying has been subjected to some study, amongst others by Calafat et al. (2000), Matthews (2003) and Iversen (2004). The key pro and con arguments have been summarised by Scheerer (1993) and Wodak et al. (2002). An analysis of recent government reports on cannabis, with specific reference to European legislative reforms, is provided by Ballotta et al. later in this monograph. Most recently, considerable discussion has focused on the potency of 1960s and 1970s cannabis vis-à-vis that available today. King explores this issue, and suggests that some of the more outlandish claims made of today’s ‘skunk’ should be viewed with a critical eye.

Selected further reading on recent cannabis history and lobbying

Adès, J-E., Gandilhon, M. (2007), ‘Le cannabis dans le débat public et médiatique’, in Cannabis:

données éssentielles, MILDT, Paris, 161–179.

Calafat, A., Juan, M., Becoña, E., Fernández, C., Gil, E., Lopis, J. J. (2000), ‘Estrategias y organización de la cultura pro-cannabis’ in Calafat, M. and Bobes Garcia, M. (eds) (2000), Monografía Cannabis, Addicciones, Madrid.

Charles, M., Britto, G. (2001), ‘The socio-cultural context of drug use and implications for drug policy’, International Social Science Journal 53: 3.

Courtwright, D. (2001), Forces of habit: drugs and the making of the modern world, Harvard University Press.

Iversen, L. (2004), ‘Cannabis and the law — high time for reform?’, European Review (2004) 12.

Kohn, M. (1992), Dope girls: the birth of the British drug underground, Lawrence and Wishart, London.

Matthews, P. (2003), Cannabis culture: a journey through disputed territory, Bloomsbury, London.

Mold, A. (2006), ‘ “The welfare branch of the alternative society?” The work of drug voluntary organization Release, 1967–1978’ in Twentieth Century British History 17.

Potter, M. (2000), ‘Propaganja: the cannabis supporters and the Wootton Report 1967–1969’, MA Dissertation in Propaganda, Persuasion and History, University of Kent.

Rubin, V. (ed.) (1976), Cannabis and culture, Mouton Publishers, The Hague.

Scheerer, S. (1993), ‘Political ideologies and drug policy’, European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research (1993) 1:1.

Stephens, R. (2003), ‘Drug use and youth consumption in West Germany during the 1960s’, Journal of Cultural Research 7.

Wodak, A., Reinarman, C., Cohen, P., Reinarman, C. (2002), ‘For and against: cannabis control:

costs outweigh the benefits’, British Medical Journal 324: 105–108.

–  –  –

Soma, the Wootton Report and cannabis law reform in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s Stephen Abrams In April 1970 the British government introduced legislation which sharply reduced the penalties for simple possession of cannabis. This was done to implement a proposal by the Home Office Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence (the ‘Wootton Report’) that casual users of cannabis should not face the prospect of imprisonment. This reform, under new legislation (The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971) was a step in the direction of decriminalisation and marked a limited toleration of cannabis smoking.

Declaration of interest The author of this chapter was head of the Soma Research Association (Soma (1)), which campaigned from 1967 for cannabis law reform. The article therefore expresses an insider’s perspective on the reform process. On 24 July 1967 Soma set out its proposals for decriminalisation in a full-page advertisement in The Times (Figure 1).

The issue was debated in Parliament and referred to the Hallucinogens Sub-Committee (the so-called ‘Wootton Committee’(2)) of the Advisory Committee. In January 1969, the Home Office published the Advisory Committee Report on Cannabis, the so-called ‘Wootton Report’. The report endorsed the proposals in the advertisement. The Home Secretary of the day denounced the report and the advertisement. However, a year later he introduced legislation to implement the main proposals of the report. This article describes the background to the appearance of the advertisement and describes the subsequent reform process up to 1979, when the Home Office advisors proposed the ‘reclassification’ of cannabis.

A brief history of cannabis convictions in the United Kingdom Cannabis was prohibited in Britain in 1928 under the Dangerous Drugs Act, which remained in force during the 1960s. Under the Act, cannabis was classified as a (1) Soma was chosen to have associations with the soma of the Rig Vedas, the nectar of the gods and the problematic tranquilliser in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World.

(2) The Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence was headed by Sir Edward Wayne, Professor of Practice of Medicine at the University of Glasgow. The ‘Wootton’ subcommittee on hallucinogens was led by Baroness Wootton of Abinger, a sociologist.

Soma, the Wootton Report and cannabis law reform in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s

–  –  –

narcotic and offences were subject to penalties essentially identical to those for heroin and cocaine. The maximum penalties were one year on summary conviction and 10 years on indictment (3). No distinction was made between possession and supply, and most offenders were sent to prison. On the other hand, up to the mid-1960s enforcement was lax and directed mainly at black immigrants from the Caribbean.

The first year in which a minority of offenders (48%) were imprisoned, 1964, was also the first year in which white offenders outnumbered black offenders (UK Home Office, 1968).

During the 1950s there was little evidence of increased use of cannabis in the United Kingdom. In 1951 there were 127 convictions and this figure was not exceeded until 1959, when it rose to 185. A plateau of about 600 convictions was reached in 1962 and not exceeded until 1966, when a figure of 1 119 was reached. In 1967 convictions doubled again to 2 393. That year the total seizures by police and customs amounted to 295 kg and 457 plants. For a comparison, 30 years later, in 1997, the year of peak enforcement, seizures amounted to about 150 000 kg and 115 000 plants (The Police Foundation, 2000), an increase by a factor of 500 and 250 respectively.

1967: a watershed year for cannabis Witnesses heard by the Wootton subcommittee in December 1967 variously estimated the prevalence of cannabis use at between 30 000 and 300 000 persons. Perhaps the lower figure corresponds roughly to the number of regular users at the beginning of the year. However, there must have been a very dramatic increase in cannabis smoking in 1967, when the subject was widely and favourably publicised. By the end of the decade, a government-funded study indicated that nearly a million people had tried cannabis (4).

The scale of cannabis use had by then probably reached a level where it was selfsustaining and could not be moderated by widespread enforcement. The sanction of imprisonment was still applied in a quarter of cases heard in 1967, the great majority of them for simple possession of small quantities. Seventeen per cent of first offenders were imprisoned (UK Home Office, 1968). The possibility of jailing tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of people for minor cannabis offences was both unthinkable and quite impractical.

In the first half of the 1960s in the United Kingdom, cannabis smoking was a feature of the half-world, where it was used by jazz musicians, artists and writers and, increasingly, in the universities. In January 1967 an article estimated that 5 % of Oxford (3) ‘Summary conviction’ means conviction in a magistrates court. Cases of possession for personal use would normally be heard in a magistrate’s court. If the accused elected trial by jury the case would be heard in a Crown court and higher penalties would apply.

(4) A survey by Market Advertising and Products Study Ltd (MAPS), commissioned in 1969 by the Home Office and the Registrar General’s Office of Population Synthesis and Survey.

Soma, the Wootton Report and cannabis law reform in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s

undergraduates smoked pot from time to time (Abrams, 1967). This converted into a figure of 500 and was debated in the broadsheet newspapers. At the instigation of the Oxford Committee on Student Health, the Vice Chancellor wrote to the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins on 28 February, asking him to commission a national inquiry into cannabis and LSD (UK Home Office, 1968). This led to the appointment on 7 April of the Hallucinogens Sub-Committee (the so-called ‘Wootton Committee’) of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence.

Up to the beginning of 1967, cannabis received little publicity and nearly all of this was negative. Though prevalence remained low, cannabis use among 1960s celebrities and pop stars served to publicise the substance. For example, the arrest of the Scottish singer Donovan in mid-1966 was widely reported. Following a denunciation in the mass circulation newspaper the News of the World, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones were arrested in February 1967 and sent for trial at the end of June for minor drugs offences. On 1 June 1967 the Beatles, at the zenith of their creative power and influence, released their Sgt. Pepper album, which was saturated with references to cannabis and LSD. The last track, ‘A Day in the Life’ (5), was banned from airplay

on the BBC. The Beatles, and Paul McCartney in particular, were advocates of LSD:

a serious confrontation was brewing between fashionable alternative society and the Establishment.

Soma was looking for a way to put the topic of cannabis law reform on the political agenda, and also to influence the terms of the deliberations of the Wootton Committee.

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