Over at The Poison Garden is a preliminary fisking of Peter Hitchens’s upcoming drugs policy book and its promotion. That led me to track down a fascinating document of Cabinet Conclusions. The date is 26th February 1970 and the topic is “the forthcoming Misuse of Drugs Bill”. The Home Secretary is James Callaghan, and this is a few months before Wilson loses the election to the Tories (who - very unusually - see that the previous government’s bill becomes law). In another document (the memorandum) Callaghan states that his own view is that the three-classifications idea should be ignored, and that possession of any controlled drug should have a maximum sentence of 7 years.
Here’s the drugs discussion in its entirety, with emphasis added by me (note how easily managing public opinion is put ahead of rationality and considered expert judgement):
“The Cabinet had before them a memorandum by the Home Secretary on the Misuse of Drugs Bill (C (70) 34).
The Home Secretary said that the Home Affairs Committee had recently considered the range of penalties to be provided in the forthcoming Misuse of Drugs Bill. Existing legislation on this subject distinguished in principle between the offences of simple possession of controlled drugs and trafficking in them. But, under the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1965, which dealt with heroin, cocaine, morphine and cannabis, the two offences had been treated on the same basis and the same penalty of ten years’ imprisonment applied to each. Under the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1964, which dealt with amphetamines, LSD and other hallucinogens, possession was punishable by two years’ imprisonment; and there was no separate offence of trafficking. The Committee had agreed that the new Bill should continue to distinguish between the offences of possession and trafficking; but they had also approved a division of drugs into three categories, each of which would attract a separate and appropriate penalty. But if—as was clearly right—the penalties for trafficking should be increased (e.g. in the case of the most dangerous drugs, from the existing limit of ten years’ imprisonment to a new limit of 14 years), it followed that the penalties for simple possession of the less serious drugs should be reduced; and the Committee had recommended that on this basis the penalty for possession of cannabis might be curtailed from ten years to three years. Further reflection, however, had suggested that public opinion might well regard a change of this kind as indicating too lenient an attitude on the part of the Government towards the potentially dangerous practice of drug-taking; and the Cabinet would wish to consider whether the political damage which the Government might suffer if this impression gained ground was sufficiently serious to justify a modification of the terms of the Bill before it was introduced.
If so, one of two courses could be adopted. The first would preserve the three categories of controlled drugs but would increase the penalties for simple possession of drugs in the two most serious categories from three years’ imprisonment to five years in the case of cannabis and from five years to seven years in the case of heroin, cocaine, etc. The second approach, which on the whole he advised, would be to abandon the distinction between categories of drugs entirely and to provide single maximum penalties for possession and trafficking respectively. The former might be either ten years or seven years’ imprisonment; the latter would be 14 years in all cases.
In discussion, there was general agreement that it would be right to maintain the distinction between the offences of possession and trafficking and to establish a more flexible and discriminating classification of the various categories of drugs. But the proposed reduction of the penalty for simple possession of cannabis from ten years’ imprisonment to three years would be liable to be severely criticised by public opinion, especially by parents and teachers. The impact of this apparent concession to the permissive tendencies in society would not be offset by the increase in the penalty for possession in the case of other drugs (e.g. LSD); and the Government might be at considerable political risk as a result. It would be very unwise to underestimate the degree of public concern on this subject and the ease with which the Governments intentions might be misinterpreted.
On the other hand, the proposals as approved by the Home Affairs Committee were the result of very careful consideration and reflected the considered judgment of expert opinion. Of the two alternative courses which the Home Secretary had suggested the second would entail a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment for simple possession of cannabis; and a sentence of such severity was wholly unrealistic in relation to the offence as committed by, for example, a schoolchild. Moreover, the penalty actually imposed would lie at the discretion of the court; and, since it was most unlikely that the court would in fact deal so harshly with an offence of this kind, the law itself would be liable to fall into disuse and disrepute. The political risks of proceeding with the proposals as approved by the Home Affairs Committee could be exaggerated; and in any event it would be wrong, in a matter of this kind, to subordinate the requirements of humanity and equity to political considerations.
The Prime Minister, summing up the discussion, said that it appeared that the Cabinet were in favour, by a small majority, of proceeding with the proposals recommended by the Home Affairs Committee. But it might help to allay public disquiet if the proposed penalties for possession of controlled drugs were increased to some extent—e.g. to seven years (instead of five years) for the most serious drugs and to five years (instead of three years) for drugs in the second category, including cannabis. The Cabinet agreed that the Bill should go forward on this basis.
Invited the Home Secretary to arrange for the early introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Bill on the basis indicated by the Prime Minister in his summing up of their discussion.”
PS If anyone has or can find any of the relevant Home Affairs Committee documents, please do let me know!