Pubdate: Sun, 17 Mar 2002
Source: Sunday Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: Telegraph Group Limited 2002
Authors: Jonathan Petre and Hazel Southam
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Christianity)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


THE Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Rev John Oliver, has become the first 
senior cleric in the Church of England to call for the 
decriminalisation of cannabis.

The bishop, who denied having tried the drug himself, told The 
Telegraph yesterday that so many young people now smoked it that the 
law had become discredited and the police would be better off using 
their resources to tackle hard drugs.

The 67-year-old bishop said that when he was a student in the early 
1950s cannabis was "virtually unknown" but was "sure" that other 
bishops must have experimented with it.

His comments follow the publication earlier this month of photographs 
of the body of Rachel Whitear, a 21-year-old Herefordshire student 
who died of heroin abuse.

Her parents, who had allowed the pictures to be shown to deter other 
young people from drug taking, have acknowledged that she almost 
certainly used soft drugs before becoming addicted to heroin.

Her stepfather, Mick Holcroft, and mother, Pauline, said yesterday 
that they were not experts in the field. They added, however, that 
they had lost their daughter to drug misuse and "if she hadn't been 
taking drugs she would be here today".

Valerie Riches of the Family and Youth Concern group said that it was 
a "shame" that the bishop had "jumped on this bandwagon".

She added: "One wants bishops to speak up for things like marriage 
and the family, but they are not equipped to comment on complex 
issues like drugs. If you legalise anything, it becomes acceptable 
and the doors are thrown wide open."

Bishop Oliver was speaking after his diocese, the most rural in the 
Church of England, became the first to vote for decriminalisation. A 
motion supporting the decriminalisation of the use, if not the 
supply, of cannabis was passed by a majority of four to one in the 
diocesan synod, last weekend. The bishop was one of those who voted 
for it.

"In the debate we heard from young people as young as 12 about the 
pressure from peer groups who were already into drugs," he explained 

"Teenagers who go clubbing said there were hundreds of thousands 
using it. The very few who are caught and punished for the possession 
and use of cannabis are unfairly penalised in comparison with the 
overwhelming majority to whom the police turn a blind eye."

He added: "We were well aware that cannabis was not a harmless drug. 
Nobody was saying that it was a good thing to use it. But we were 
saying that the present system is unsustainable.

"I was very influenced by the change of heart by many senior police 
officers who used to take a hard line on cannabis but now think it 
diverts attention from other forms of drug taking."

He said that the argument that it was a "gateway" drug which 
introduced people to harder drugs was not compelling.

"I'm sure that for some people it is a gateway to other drugs but for 
some, if you decoupled cannabis from other drugs, you would actually 
prevent them becoming the victims of dealers. The argument can be 
quite plausibly be made either way."

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has already announced that the 
Government is considering reclassifying cannabis from a class B to a 
class C drug.

This would mean that anyone caught with a small amount for personal 
use could no longer be arrested by the police. Under the plans it 
would still be a crime to possess or use cannabis, but not an 
arrestable offence.

Other Church dioceses are now expected to discuss the issue, leading 
to a debate in the General Synod. Last year, a paper submitted to MPs 
by the Church's Board for Social Responsibility, which considers 
social issues, argued in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis, 
saying that although it might be wrong, it should not be punished as 
a crime.
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