Front page of The Independent, 1998The news has been full of apologies these past few weeks: apologies made, apologies demanded, apologies avoided. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was sorry about the women prisoners forced into prostitution by Japanese soldiers during World War II — although without conceding that the government at the time was responsible for it.

Tony Blair has expressed sorrow for the suffering of slaves traded by Britain in the past, without exactly apologising for the practice. Things have gone a little further in the United States where Virginia has become the first state to formally apologise for slavery, ahead of the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown.

Today we are confronted with the (forced) apology of British Navy hostage Faye Turney for the alleged trespass of a boat she was in on Iranian waters. Paraded on Iranian television, Ms Turney said she had written a letter apologising to the people of Iran.

Less politically momentous than any of the above but much more startling in its way is an apology that appeared on the front page of the British weekly, The Independent on Sunday, two weeks ago: Cannabis: An apology. The leading article went on to declare that, in the face of new evidence about the harm the drug is doing, the paper has reversed its 10-year campaign for decriminalisation.

This is very significant turnaround. It is as though the Indy's rival, The Telegraph, were to admit that the government should spend more on social welfare, or The New York Times to decide to champion abstinence-only sex education. It makes one sit up and take notice. My own expectations of the paper — which are rather low on issues of this sort — are under revision. It takes a bit of backbone to say that you have been on the wrong track and switch direction.

It is not as though The Independent's pro-cannabis campaign was simply a war of words, a matter of editorials and "look-I-smoked-marijuana-and-I'm-OK" stories. They actually got thousands of people marching on the street and claim some credit for the downgrading of the drug's legal status from prohibited class B to class C in 2002. Wanting to hold the line there — the paper's new position — means loss of former activist supporters.

There is more at stake, however. Decriminalisation of drug use is one of those "liberal" causes that tend to cluster together in left-leaning papers like The Independent. Others are freedom of choice in abortion, prostitution and all manner of sexual behaviour. The philosophy behind this stance has been restated by the paper: "We still believe that adults should be free to live their lives as long as they cause others no harm."

But the harm of marijuana is precisely what it has had to confront. Amongst the evidence it took into account is the following:

* More than 22,000 people were treated in the UK last year for cannabis addiction, and almost half of those were under 18.
* The cannabis smoked by the majority of young Britons (and others) today — known as "skunk" — is 25 times stronger than traditional resin or "grass".
* New research shows today's cannabis is more dangerous than LSD or ecstasy.
* There is strong evidence that cannabis causes or aggravates psychosis in vulnerable individuals — an expert estimates that at least 25,000 of the 250,000 schizophrenics in the UK could have avoided the illness if they had not used the drug.
* At the current rate of use the burden of mental illness among young people can only get worse.

In other words, what appeared to The Independent a decade ago as an issue about liberty and law-enforcement priorities has become "a medical debate about mental health". But if that has happened with one issue, could it not happen with others? If the media are really open to evidence it cannot be long before someone breaks ranks and says "we were wrong about abortion/safe sex/euthanasia" or whatever.

After all, it is not such a big risk. If some former fellow travellers are outraged at the Indy's new line (the paper reports that last week "on pro-marijuana blogs and chatrooms from Sydney to Sarajevo, the mood was more murderous than mellow") others more influential openly agree with it.

Among the latter are airline entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson (whose change of heart can only be reassuring to those who fly Virgin — who wants a pot-smoking pilot?) and the head of Britain's Medical Research Council (another relief). Both of these influential personages previously backed the decriminalisation campaign.

The police, as one would expect, are very pleased. As a spokeswoman pointed out: "Many people read only one newspaper or maybe a couple…and their views of the world are formed by what you put in those papers." Even the United Nations has weighed in with a supportive article from someone in its Office on Drugs and Crime.

All this, and the attendant surge in publicity over the past couple of weeks, must be very gratifying to the paper's management. Gratification aside, to face up to new evidence is a moral achievement in itself and an encouraging sign in a media world where changing the editorial line on a core issue is rare, and apologies tend to stick in the throat. It took the New York Times months and persistent efforts to acknowledge that a front-page story in its Magazine last year on abortion restrictions in El Salvador had been incorrect, and one can only assume that was because of the paper's pro-choice bias.

Of course, the conservative media can be wrong about things too. With the good example of the Indy before them it should be much easier in future to change their tune as well.

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.