Pubdate: Sun, 06 Feb 2000
Source: The Observer, UK
Copyright: Guardian Media Group plc. 2000
Pubdate: February 6, 2000
Author: Martin Bright and Jay Rayner


The Government's drug tsar, Keith Hellawell, has called for a
liberalisation of the law on cannabis in a radical overhaul of the way
the criminal justice system deals with drug offenders.

In an exclusive interview with The Observer , he said the Government
and the police should concentrate on the fight against heroin and
cocaine use and stop being distracted by cannabis.

His comments, which were last night attacked as being 'defeatist',
follow calls from the Liberal Democrats for a Royal Commission on
decriminalising cannabis use. Mo Mowlam, the Cabinet Minister who has
admitted smoking cannabis in her youth, is thought to be sympathetic
to a softening of the law.

Hellawell said: 'What I have done is lift the stone on the hidden
truth about drugs in Britain, which is that we need to discriminate
between different drugs and the relative harm caused and then talk
openly about the difference we can make. The focus is going to be on
the drugs that cause the major harm.'

He said the police were convicting too many people for the possession
of small amounts of cannabis to hit the drug crime targets.

'By far the greater proportion of arrests are for cannabis and I am
looking for a change on that. I am looking for a shift towards those
dealing in heroin and cocaine.'

Although he said new legislation would not be needed, his comments
will be seen as an attempt to reform the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act by
the back door. Under the Act, the possession of cannabis is a criminal
offence punishable by prison.

His comments angered Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary. 'What
we need is a clampdown on the possession of cannabis,' she said.
'Hellawell is completely wrong. We should be looking at a zero
tolerance policy.'

He said: 'Successive Conservative governments said the solution to the
drug problem lay with the criminal justice system. Now funds are being
shifted into treatment and education.'

His comments chime with the findings of a Police Foundation report on
the 1971 Act to be published next month. The committee is set to
recommend withdrawing prison sentences for possession of cannabis and
taking ecstasy off the list of Class A drugs.

Hellawell added: 'The report will be a another step towards facing up
to the reality of the situation. They are grappling with many of the
issues we are taking care of.' 
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