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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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In particular, the aim was to persuade the subcommittee to report on cannabis alone, rather than in conjunction with LSD. This in turn was based on the assumption that there was a consensus of informed opinion that cannabis was less harmful than stimulants, sedatives and alcohol and confidence that the committee would discover this for themselves. The gesture which occurred to me was to take a page of The Times newspaper for a paid advertisement in support of the decriminalisation of cannabis.

The advertisement would draw its force from a number of influential people who would put their names to it. Barry Miles (6) mentioned this proposal to Paul McCartney on 2 June. McCartney immediately realised that the advertisement would have the effect of switching the focus from LSD to cannabis and associating the Beatles with prominent authorities in a legitimate protest ‘within the system’. Following a meeting between McCartney, Miles and myself on 5 June, the Beatles agreed to add their names to the (5) The song’s lyrics include the lines ‘Found my way upstairs and had a smoke/Somebody spoke and I went into a dream’.

(6) Barry Miles was an author and co-runner of London’s Indica bookshop and gallery, later biographer of Allan Ginsberg and Paul McCartney.

–  –  –

advertisement and McCartney guaranteed the funding, finally credited to a Beatles advertising account (7).

At the end of June, as the preparation of the advertisement neared completion, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. There was a public outcry, including three nights of demonstrations in Fleet Street against the newspaper the News of the World, who were accused by Michael Havers, Jagger’s counsel, of sending in an agent provocateur. After spending two nights in prison, Jagger and Richards were released on bail on 30 June. Jagger had been sentenced to three months for possession of amphetamines and Richards was sentenced to a year for the ‘absolute’ offence that cannabis had been smoked at his home, with or without his knowledge (8).

On the following day, 1 July, The Times published a famous leading article with the felicitous title, ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’. This leader has been much misunderstood, not least by its author, William Rees-Mogg, who claims that it ‘helped to get Jagger out of prison on a minor drugs charge’ (9). Also, the official history of The Times says that the leader was delivered to Jagger in prison by a warder with the advice that he would soon be freed on bail (10). As mentioned above, Jagger was freed a day before the leader appeared. Many, if not most, accounts of the case, including the most recent one in The Times and others in The Guardian, The Independent and on the BBC, assert that Jagger was convicted of possession of cannabis (11). Rees-Mogg’s leader made it clear that he considered amphetamine to be a ‘soft’ drug and Jagger’s offence to be trivial. However, he seemed to regard cannabis as a dangerous narcotic and was not, therefore, prepared to question the sentence of a year in prison for Richards. The Times got cold feet and postponed the publication of the advertisement, which finally appeared on 24 July. In the interim, a Legalise Pot Rally was held in Hyde Park on 16 July, attended by 10 000 people, marking the colourful advent of ‘flower power’. Most national newspapers covered the event with a two-page spread. There were no arrests.

(7) B. Miles, Paul McCartney: many years from now, Secker & Warburg, London, 1997, pp. 386–395;

S. Abrams, ‘The Wootton Retort’; D. Taylor, It was twenty years ago today, Bantam Press, London, 1987, pp. 122–127.

(8) T. Hewat (ed.), Rolling Stones file: the trials of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Panther Record, London, 1967, p. 128.

(9) In a news article, ‘We’ve got to face it, Britain’s gone to pot’ (The Times, 2 July 2001), Lord ReesMogg finally expressed the view that ‘prohibition has not proved to be the answer’.

(10) John Grigg in The Times Magazine, 30 October 1993, p. 39.

(11) Lewis Smith in The Times, 2 August 2005: [Jagger was] convicted of possessing cannabis in 1967 in a case that became a cause célèbre when first he was jailed for a year and then freed on appeal three days later after a leading article in The Times headlined ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel’.

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

Paragraph 2 of the Wootton Report reads:

Our first enquiries were proceeding — without publicity — into the pharmacological and medical aspects, when other developments gave our study new and increased significance.

An advertisement in The Times on 24th July, 1967 represented that the long-asserted dangers of cannabis were exaggerated and that the related law was socially damaging, if not unworkable. This was followed by a wave of debate about these issues in Parliament, the Press and elsewhere, and reports of enquiries, e.g. by the National Council for Civil Liberties. This publicity made more explicit the nature of some current ‘protest’ about official policy on drugs;

defined more clearly some of the main issues in our study; and led us to give greater attention to the legal aspects of the problem. Government spokesmen made it clear that any future development of policy on cannabis would have to take account of the Advisory Committee’s Report. Accordingly, we decided to give first priority to presenting our views on cannabis.





The advertisement in The Times (Figure 1) was published by the Soma Research Association and signed by 65 people, including the Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, novelist Graham Greene, 15 doctors of medicine, one member of the Wootton Committee, members of Parliament and the Beatles (12). The advertisement was the subject of an adjournment debate in Parliament in the week of its appearance (on 28 July), when the Minister of State referred the issue to the Wootton Committee (13). The Wootton Report was submitted on 1 November 1968 and published in January 1969.

The advertisement in The Times described the existing law as ‘immoral in principle and unworkable in practice’ but it stopped short of advocating the legalisation of cannabis. Instead, it proposed that users of cannabis should not face the prospect of imprisonment. Specifically, the advertisement said that possession of a small amount should not be punished by anything more than a relatively small fine of £25. The question of supply was ignored. This position has become known as ‘decriminalisation’.

The Advisory Committee Report included many echoes of the advertisement, that:

(…) The long term consumption of cannabis in moderate doses has no harmful effects (…) Cannabis is less dangerous than the opiates, amphetamines and barbiturates, and also less dangerous than alcohol. (…) An increasing number of people, mainly young, in all classes of (12) The Soma Research Association was founded in January 1967, incorporated in 1969 and disbanded in 1971. The directors were Dr David Cooper; Francis Crick, FRS; Francis Huxley; Dr R. D. Laing;

The Rev. Kenneth Leech; Dr Anthony Storr; Professor Norman Zinberg and the present writer. The secretary, from 1968, was Don Aitken. Staff included Adam Parker-Rhodes, pharmacologist; Dick Pountain, chemist; Derek Blackburn, psychologist; and Sam Hutt and Ian Dunbar, physicians.

Premises (in London) were at 438 Fulham Road (from 1968) and 4 Camden High Street (from 1969).

Soma was funded by private donations and subscriptions. The total expenditure did not exceed £5 000. This figure does not include the cost of advertisement, which was £1 800.

(13) On 31 July the Court of Appeal quashed Richards’s conviction. This was remarkable because Richards had no case to argue. However, the court ignored the fact that the premises offence was ‘absolute’. Jagger’s conviction was upheld but he was let off with a conditional discharge.

Chapter 4

society are experimenting with this drug, and substantial numbers use it regularly for social pleasure. There is no evidence that this activity is causing violent crime, or is producing in otherwise normal people conditions of dependence or psychosis requiring medical treatment (…) there are indications that (cannabis) may become a functional equivalent of alcohol.

The burden of proof thus passed from the campaigners to the government’s own expert advisors; and this was regarded by many as a green light for the consumption of cannabis. The Advisory Committee appeared also to accept the principle of decriminalisation. The main proposal in the report was that ‘possession of a small amount of cannabis should not normally be regarded as a serious crime to be punished

by imprisonment’. The accompanying letter of submission to the Home Secretary said:

‘The committee is generally of the view that imprisonment is no longer an appropriate punishment for those who are unlawfully in possession of a small amount.’ The Home Secretary of the day, James Callaghan, suggested he would reject the report.

He told Parliament that on his reading, the committee had been ‘over-influenced’ by the ‘lobby’ for ‘legalisation’ responsible for ‘that notorious advertisement’, adding, ‘it was wrong for the committee to report on one drug in isolation in the way that it did’ (14).

However, a year later he introduced comprehensive new consolidating legislation that had the effect of implementing Wootton’s proposal (15).

Callaghan’s Misuse of Drugs Bill increased the penalties for most drugs offences, including trafficking in cannabis. However, this legislation introduced a distinction not drawn by Wootton between penalties for use and supply. The penalties for possession of cannabis were sharply reduced, by 50 %, to five years on indictment and six months on summary conviction. The Wootton Report noted that offences with a maximum sentence on summary conviction of six months or less were not normally punished by imprisonment, and that such sentences as were passed were suspended as a matter of routine. They opted for a maximum sentence on summary conviction of four months.

Callaghan’s legislation perished in the General Election of 1970. However, it was soon reintroduced by the incoming Conservative government and became law as The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). When the act received the Royal Assent in 1973, the Lord Chancellor, Hailsham, instructed magistrates on sentencing. He said, ‘Set aside your prejudice, if you have one, and reserve the sentence of imprisonment for suitably flagrant cases of large scale trafficking’ (16).

(14) Hansard, 27 January 1969.

(15) One account suggests James Callaghan got cold feet and tried at the last moment to alter the legislation, but he was outvoted in cabinet: entry for 26 February 1970 in A. Howard (ed.) (1979), The Crossman Diaries, London.

(16) The Times, 12 October 1973.

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

The operation of the new law in its first four years was made the subject of a special in-depth statistical analysis by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), prepared in December 1978 and published in 1979 (17). This study showed that the law was working as intended and that, with a handful of exceptions, the courts had abandoned custodial sentences for cannabis users. During this period, there was a further reduction, under the Criminal Justice Act (1977), of 50 % in the maximum sentence on summary conviction, to three months’ imprisonment, one month less than the maximum proposed by the Wootton Report.

Subsequently, in 1978 the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (the successor to the Advisory Committee) proposed to ‘reclassify’ cannabis, moving it to the weakest of three punishment regimes. It took 25 years to implement this recommendation. However, in the 1980s the Thatcher government moved sharply in the direction of decriminalisation by introducing ‘cautioning’: an offender who was cautioned would escape without a fine or a criminal conviction. By the beginning of the 1990s, the majority of minor cases were dealt with by means of the caution, so that in 1992, when The Times itself came out in support of legalisation, on the 25th anniversary of the Soma advertisement, the leader could conclude that the law was ‘all but unenforced’.

In 2000 the question of reclassification was revived in the Report of the Independent Police Foundation Inquiry. In response, the Home Secretary sought advice from the Advisory Council and from the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs (see Ballotta et al., this monograph). The interesting point, perhaps, is that all three bodies stressed that the importance of reclassification (which did not directly affect the penalty on summary conviction) was that it demonstrated the fact that cannabis is less dangerous than amphetamine. With the reclassification of cannabis — where there is a ‘presumption not to arrest’ reasonably discreet adult users of cannabis — there has thus been a complete reversal of the assessment of the relative dangers of these two drugs in the 1960s. It is worth adding, perhaps, that Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger were both eventually convicted of cannabis offences, for which they received small fines. Today, Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Michael Jagger have received knighthoods.

(17) Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (1978) – Report on a review of the classification of controlled drugs and of penalties under schedules 2 and 4 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, 15 December 1978.

This proposal also called for the law to be recast to remove the sanction of imprisonment on statutory conviction for possession of cannabis.

Chapter 4

References Abrams, S. (1967), ‘The Oxford scene and the law’, in Andrews, G., Vinkenoog, S. (eds) (1967), The book of grass, Peter Owen, London, 235–242.

Abrams, S. (1997), ‘The Wootton Retort: the decriminalization of cannabis in Britain’, privately circulated, available from Drugscope and the Internet.

The Police Foundation (2000), Drugs and the law: report of the independent enquiry into the misuse of drugs act. Published by The Police Foundation, London.

UK Home Office (1968), Cannabis: report by the advisory committee on drugs dependence (The ‘Wootton Report’), Home Office, HMSO, 1968.



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