Pubdate: Sun, 28 Oct 2001
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Nicholas Hellen and John Elliott
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


It was enough to give even the notoriously clean-living home secretary a 
headache. On almost every conceivable measure, David Blunkett's advisers 
told him, the war against drugs was floundering.

While cannabis had become de rigueur at middle-class dinner parties, the 
police were still under orders to arrest anyone found smoking it.

According to one report handed to Blunkett, two thirds of all drug busts 
involved possession of cannabis, and each one tied up police officers for 
up to three hours. Almost half of all 16 to 29-year-olds had experimented 
with the drug.

Since the 1960s not one of his predecessors had resolved the dilemma. He 
laid the groundwork for last week's announcement immediately after he was 
made home secretary in June. Keith Hellawell, the "drug czar", was pushed 
aside, and Blunkett seized control of drug policy from the Cabinet Office.

The beginnings of his softer line on cannabis emerged in the south London 
borough of Brixton, where Brian Paddick, the local police commander, 
decided there was no longer any point arresting everyone found with 
cannabis. Blunkett visited the scheme, inviting television news crews to 
record it.

His mind was made up. According to Bob Ainsworth, the drug minister, the 
amount of police time wasted in pursuing trivial cases - with average fines 
of UKP87 - meant that a more liberal approach had to be introduced. But 
leaving local police chiefs to decide how harshly cannabis users should be 
dealt with risked making a mockery of the law.

Ainsworth said: "We have a tradition in this country where we ensure laws 
are enforced and, to retain their credibility, they must command widespread 
support. This is not compatible with widespread variations in police practice."

Blunkett secured Tony Blair's agreement to reclassify cannabis as a 
category C drug, saying this would enable the police to spend more time 
tackling the 250,000 people estimated to use category A drugs.

However, while proposing that possession of cannabis should become a 
non-arrestable offence, he stopped short of legalising it. Supply remains 
in the hands of criminals, which many have argued means cannabis smokers 
come into contact with more dangerous drugs.

A Whitehall source attempted to defend the policy. "We are only reviewing 
possession, not supply, so the issue did not arise," he said.

However, in a Mori poll published this weekend, 65% say cannabis should be 

The downgrading of the drug from class B to C is expected to be approved 
early next year, after a review by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of 
Drugs. But it may not be a foregone conclusion. Blunkett is braced for 
criticism from Hellawell, who will be asked on Tuesday by the home affairs 
select committee if he agrees with this strategic retreat.

Whitehall insiders said this weekend that Hellawell, who remains an adviser 
to the Home Office, had not been consulted on the climbdown. One said: "He 
has taken a firm stance against this very idea, arguing that a formal 
change sends out the wrong signals."

New research into the damaging effects of cannabis may also rally 
opposition to Blunkett's recommendation. Experts say new strains of 
virulent "skunk" are up to 20 times stronger than the "wacky baccy" smoked 
by the Woodstock generation, and compare its effects to the difference 
between vodka and a shandy.

As Tom, 26, a music producer, said: "Skunk is a lot stronger than hash or 
weed. It drives you bonkers, and with one type, Northern Lights, you see 
flashes of light."

Heather Ashton, a government adviser on cannabis, said there was a tendency 
to underestimate the effects of high doses of tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), 
the active ingredient in cannabis.

"The reefers they used to smoke in flower power days contained about 1% 
THC, whereas skunk has about 20%," she said. "It affects the memory, 
aggravates schizophrenia and has risks for heart disease and also in 
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MAP posted-by: Beth