Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jul 2001
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Authors: Michael Prescott, Tom Robbins


TWO former home secretaries said yesterday that possession of cannabis 
should be decriminalised amid signs from the Home Office that change may be 
contemplated during the course of this parliament.

Lord Jenkins and Lord Baker each supported a change in the law under which 
possession of cannabis for personal use would no longer be an arrestable 
offence. A third former home secretary, Lord Waddington, said he would 
regard decriminalisation as a "minor step".

At present cannabis is a category B drug, as defined by the 1971 Misuse of 
Drugs Act. Those caught in possession can be arrested and face a prison 
sentence of up to five years.

Last year an independent commission into the drugs laws chaired by Lady 
Runciman proposed reclassifying cannabis as a category C drug, thereby 
making possession for personal use no longer an offence carrying a criminal 

Jenkins, regarded as an important mentor to Tony Blair on key Labour 
reforms, said yesterday that he supported the Runciman proposal. "It is 
quite firmly my view that the time for a change in the law has come," said 
Jenkins, who served as Labour's home secretary from 1965 until 1967. This 
was the year when controversy about the ban on cannabis first broke because 
of the conviction on drug charges of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the 
Rolling Stones.

Asked what change in the law he favoured, Jenkins said: "To decriminalise, 

Baker, who served as Tory home secretary from 1990-92, remained firmly 
opposed to the legalisation of cannabis. However, asked whether he would 
support decriminalisation, he replied: "I think that's quite a good 
position. To fill our prisons with people who are cannabis users is a bum 
use of the prisons."

Waddington, who was viewed as a hardliner when he was Tory home secretary 
from 1989-90, remained staunchly opposed to legalisation of cannabis but 
was also sympathetic to decriminalisation.

"Cannabis has an unfortunate effect on the personality," he said. "I saw it 
in Bermuda [where he served as governor] where there are many habitual 
users. It destroys motivation. It can precipitate schizophrenia and do 
lasting brain damage."

Asked whether he might support decriminalisation, he replied: "There may be 
a case for that."

People caught possessing a class C drug, such as tranquillisers, generally 
receive a caution, although a maximum two-year sentence remains on the 
statute book.

Downing Street gave a dusty response on Friday to questions about changes 
in the law on cannabis, which were prompted by a Social Market Foundation 
pamphlet written by Peter Lilley. The former cabinet minister advocated 
legalisation of cannabis and suggested it should be sold from licensed 
outlets for use at home.

Although Home Office ministers have refused to comment on Lilley's idea, 
senior sources at the department signalled yesterday that changes were not 
ruled out.

They said David Blunkett, the home secretary, would wait to see the outcome 
of a trial in Brixton, south London, where police have said they will issue 
warnings for cannabis possession but will make no arrests.

Although Blunkett has ruled out setting up a royal commission on drug 
misuse, he promised "sensible answers that respond to the public need". He 
also said he was awaiting the results of a government study before deciding 
whether to legalise cannabis for medical purposes.

The renewed debate about soft drugs coincides with the publication of a 
book which reveals that police officers are routinely taking drugs ranging 
from cannabis to ecstasy.

Written by David Wilson, the former head of officer training for the prison 
service, the book details the experiences of officers who smoked cannabis 
in Amsterdam, took ecstasy at raves and spoke of a "secret society" of drug 
takers within the force.

Wilson, now professor of criminal justice at the University of Central 
England, interviewed 20 officers who confessed to drug taking. In one case 
an officer revealed that he gave his drug dealer "mini-seminars" on how to 
avoid arrest. It argues that the police are fighting a losing battle 
against the tough crime reduction targets they have set themselves.
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