Friday 31 Mar 2000 - THIRTY-THREE years on, the names that helped fill the remarkable full-page advertisement in The Times - calling for private use of cannabis to be treated at worst as a misdemeanour - present a striking roster of Sixties opinion-formers.
Radicals from the arts, politics and medicine had enthusiastically thrown their weight behind the notion of clearing the jails of those imprisoned for possession of the drug or for permitting its use on their premises.
Respectability rubbed shoulders with the Swinging Sixties. There were Jonathan Aitken, who was then respectable, and the political agitator Tariq Ali, who was not. All four Beatles signed, each taking care to mention his MBE. The list bristled with important personalities: David Bailey, Graham Greene, David Hockney, George Melly, David Dimbleby, Jonathan Miller, Kenneth Tynan.
To a Guardian columnist, writing as recently as last August, the support of public figures for decriminalisation of cannabis has developed from that Times ad into an "old and enjoyable summer ritual" as predictable as a hippy invasion of Stonehenge on Midsummer's Eve, or an English cricket defeat.
In fact, as a chronology published by the Campaign to Legalise Cannabis International Association (CLCIA) shows, signatories to The Times did little more than maintain a trend dating from 2737BC. In that year, according to the CLCIA's earliest reference, the drug is described as a superior herb in "the world's first medical text, or pharmacopoeia, Shen Yung's Pen Ts'ao, in China".
For the CLCIA, the history of campaigning can be reduced to catchy footnotes. Hence, in 1500BC, "cannabis-smoking Scythians sweep through Europe and Asia, settling and inventing the scythe"; a thousand years later, a number of African and Asian religions "adopt cannabis"; later still, the Roman Emperor Nero's surgeon, Dioscorides, is to be found praising the drug "for making the stoutest cords and
for its medicinal properties".
Between then and the first quarter of the 20th century, the drug moved through long spells of unqualified acceptability - Elizabeth I and George Washington positively encouraged its cultivation - to an era of gathering hostility. This culminated, in Britain, with the Dangerous Drugs Act finally outlawing cannabis in 1928. But defenders of the drug were undeterred.
The year of The Times ad was also the year of dramatic events in the history of pro-cannabis agitation. Some 3,000 people staged a "smoke-in" in Hyde Park; Mick Jagger and his Rolling Stones colleague Keith Richards were jailed on drug charges, though they were quickly freed and their convictions quashed. Public mood seemed to be turning. But the Labour Government flatly rejected Lady Wootton's report, which declared that the dangers of moderate use of cannabis had been exaggerated and urging reduced penalties for small-scale possession.
In 1976, President Ford banned medical research on cannabis; in the Nineties, Michael Howard, then Tory Home Secretary, twice raised penalties for its use. But the voices identified by the whimsical Guardian columnist have insisted on being heard. Rosie Boycott's short reign as editor of The Independent is remembered chiefly for her "legalise cannabis" campaign. More than 100 celebrities and academics
In parts of the world, involvement with cannabis still carries the risk of draconian consequences. In America, a court condemned Elaine Prince-Patron, an English grandmother and resident of Arizona, to life imprisonment, with no parole for 25 years, after she was caught with 80lb of a cannabis-related plant.
In Britain, big-time traffickers also attract heavy sentences. But while attitudes vary around the country,
there is growing evidence of greater tolerance by the police and the courts of those involved in modest use or even distribution.
A son of Lord Steel, the former Liberal leader, was jailed for nine months for growing cannabis. But Jack Straw's 17-year-old son escaped with a caution after selling the drug to an undercover tabloid reporter. Individuals using the drug for the relief of pain or stress are still pursued in the courts, but are generally treated with sympathy.
Alun Buffry, nominating officer of the Norfolk-based Legalise Cannabis Alliance, which supports single-issue
candidates at local and national elections, said: "I think as far as the general public is concerned, we are more of less halfway there. But major obstacles remain in Government, particularly with Jack Straw and Tony Blair."
Mr Buffry, 50, an occasional user of the drug since university days in the late Sixties, said the signatories to
The Times advertisement were pioneers in the sense of promoting decriminalisation. But he questioned the extent of their historical influence. 'After all," he said, "sentences are higher now than they were in the Seventies."
by Colin Randall/The Daily Telegraph