Rethinking the generation gap

AuthorMichael Shiner,Geoffrey Pearson
Publication Date01 February 2002
Date01 February 2002
Rethinking the generation gap:
Attitudes to illicit drugs among young
people and adults
Goldsmiths College, UK
This article presents data from a secondary analysis of two public
opinion surveys that were commissioned by the Independent
Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act, which reported in 2000. It is
largely concerned with how young people and adults assess the
harms associated with different illicit drugs. The first survey
indicates that children aged 11 years see all illicit drugs as equally
harmful, but as they grow into their teenage years they come to
distinguish cannabis from the rest. The second survey canvassed
the opinions of adults aged 16–59 years, and finds fundamental
agreement between adults of all ages that cannabis is the least
harmful of drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. In conclusion, we
discuss the implications of these findings for policy and for
sociological understanding of the place and meaning of illicit drugs
in modern Britain.
Key Words
• drugs • generation gap • law • public attitudes
Background and introduction: the volatile drugs debate
On 23 September 2001 the Home Secretary of the UK government, David
Blunkett, was called to give evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee
on Home Affairs that was reviewing British drug policy. He took the
opportunity to make a number of announcements about his future plans in
this domain, the most startling of which was that he intended to reclassify
Criminal Justice
© 2002 SAGE Publications
London, Thousand Oaks
and New Delhi.
1466–8025(200202) 2:1;
Vol. 2(1): 71–86; 022530
the legal position of cannabis. Since the passing of the 1971 Misuse of
Drugs Act, Britain has had a three-fold classification of illicit drugs, within
which substances are allocated according to their perceived dangerousness.
In 1971 cannabis was placed in Class B, incurring maximum penalties of
five years imprisonment for possession and 14 years imprisonment for
trafficking offences concerning cannabis. On 23 September 2001 the Home
Secretary said that he intended to move cannabis into Class C, the least
harmful category, which would mean that its possession would no longer
be an arrestable offence and that most offenders would be dealt with by a
combination of warnings (formal and informal) and cautions.
This was widely seen as a dramatic about-turn by a government which
only months earlier had resolutely set its face against any change in the law,
following recommendations for legal change along very similar lines from
the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act (Police Foundation,
The Independent Inquiry had been established in 1997 under the aus-
pices of the Police Foundation, an independent research organization, with
assistance from the Prince’s Trust. Its membership embraced a variety of
expertise, including individuals with relevant experience from the legal
profession, medicine, philosophy, criminology, education and the mass
media, together with two senior police officers. Its aim was to review ‘the
changes which have taken place in our society’ in the 30 years since the
Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced, and ‘to assess whether the law as it
currently stands needs to be revised in order to make it both more effective
and more responsive to those changes’ (Police Foundation, 2000: 1).
The Inquiry took evidence, both oral and written, from a wide range of
sources and also commissioned research, including a review of comparative
European drug laws (Dorn and Jamieson, 2001), a study of young people’s
reactions to drug laws (Parker, 1998) and two surveys of public opinion
which are examined in this article (MORI, 1999a, 1999b). In all, the
Inquiry made 81 detailed recommendations on changes to the law and
other related matters. The most eye-catching of these proposals was that
the possession of cannabis for personal use should no longer be an
imprisonable offence, that it should be removed from Class B to Class C,
with the implication that the police should no longer have the power to
arrest for cannabis possession. Rather, such cases would be dealt with by
the power of summons or by some form of warning.
Perhaps predictably, the report received a negative response from
Britain’s New Labour government, and almost before the ink had dried the
then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, stated that there would be no change in
drug laws. The report received widespread press coverage and commentary,
however, which was broadly welcoming in tone, with a unifying theme that
Britain needed a vigorous national debate on these matters. Headlines
declared, ‘At last, an injection of common sense into the debate on drugs’
(Independent, 29 March 2000), ‘Now let’s have a proper debate’ (Evening
Standard, 28 March 2000) and ‘We must get real on drug use’ (Daily
Criminal Justice 2(1)

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