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Decriminalize Marijuana Use, Says Church of Scotland Report


May-June 1997

Decriminalize marijuana smoking, says a Church of Scotland report published on March 25 after a two-year study into drug use ("Report of the Study Group on the Decriminalisation of Drugs," Church of Scotland, Board of Social Responsibility, March 25, 1997; Carlos Alba and Robbie Dinwoodie, "Blair at Odds With Church Over Drugs; Kirk's Soft Line on Cannabis," The Herald (Glasgow), March 26, 1997, p. 1).

The "Kirk report," as it is called, concluded that using cannabis is no more sinful than drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco or overeating. The Rev. Jim Cowie, who led the study, said, "We do not believe that the consumption of cannabis is unduly detrimental to people's health or to society." Cowie added, "The cost to society if people choose cannabis instead of alcohol and tobacco, to both legal and health services, would be greatly reduced." Cowie also said, "Medical use of cannabis, which the Government recently voted against, is recommended." The report was conducted by the Church of Scotland's Board of Social Responsibility (BSR).

The report calls for 1) "the appropriate legal authorities to ensure that resources are in place for greater and more consistent use to be made of diversion schemes in dealing with cannabis users," 2) "a Royal Commission [to] be appointed to consider and make recommendations on the issues involved in the legalisation of cannabis," 3) "the Department of Health to initiate a review of the medical uses of cannabis," and 4) "the Board to continue to monitor, research and challenge the reasons for the misuse of drugs as they relate to the full range of social conditions."

Anomalies in the courts' treatment of soft drug offenders should be monitored by a Royal Commission, the report says, claiming the law unjustly targets social users and that the punishment often does not fit the crime. It suggests there should be standardized strategies, such as warning letters and counseling, to replace fines and prison sentences.

While advocating the decriminalization of cannabis, the Kirk report did not call for legalization, but for further study of that option. Rev. Bill Wallace, convener of the BSR, said, "Since there are increasingly vocal groups advocating the decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis we recommend that a Royal Commission should be set up to look at all aspects of such a step. We are, in effect, saying look before you ever consider leaping into the unknown. The experience of legalising alcohol and tobacco would indicate that such a change would be well nigh irreversible."

The report received some support from religious leaders in Scotland. Roman Catholic priest Father William Slavin, who spent 10 years working with drug addicts in Barlinnie Prison, said, "If you take cannabis out of the legal equation it leaves you a clear field to deal with the really serious things." Rev. Richard Holloway, the leader of the Episcopalian church in Scotland, said, "The report seems eminently sensible."

On May 19, the report was presented to the Church of Scotland's Genera Assembly, which agreed with its findings. According to a straw poll of ministers, they supported marijuana legalization primarily on the grounds of inconsistencies in sentencing (Nick Thorpe, "Ministers explain stance on cannabis," The Scotsman (Edinburgh), May 21, 1997,

Contact Aileen Buchanan, Church of Scotland's Board of Social Responsibility - Tel: (011) (44) (131) 657-2000. The report is located at