Pubdate: Sun, 30 Jun 2002
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Contact:  2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: David Leppard
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)


MINISTERS are to press ahead with "decriminalising" cannabis despite public
concern that it will encourage an explosion in drug abuse. 

David Blunkett, the home secretary, is to risk a public backlash by
announcing in July his plans to reclassify cannabis, allowing those who
possess it to escape arrest. The move could see the drug effectively
legalised across Britain by the end of the year.

Ministers and police chiefs insist that a controversial pilot scheme in
Brixton, south London, has been an "undoubted success", allowing police to
concentrate on tackling street dealers and violent crime. 

Brixton was supposed to be a model experiment to show how drug use and other
crime could be curbed by reallocating hard-pressed police resources.
However, its critics, including members of the black and Asian community,
say the scheme - where people caught with small amounts of cannabis are
given a warning and have the drug confiscated instead of being prosecuted -
has brought more hard drug dealers into the area.  

Their concerns are backed by Metropolitan police statistics that show drug
offences in the borough of Lambeth, of which Brixton is a part, have risen
sharply since the experiment was introduced last July. 

Figures for March, the latest available, reveal that the number of offences
for drugs possession rose to 242 from 76 in March 2001. 

In the year to March drug possession offences in Lambeth rose from 1,058 to
1,378 - an increase of about 30%. That figure is three times the rate of
increase for the same offences across London as a whole. 

Chris Andre-Watson, a minister at Brixton Baptist church who runs a
community group for teenage boys, said: "The experiment has primed the
community for crack. Crack had already got a foot in the door. Now that door
has opened that bit further. For the under-16s there is no regulation at

"The message I get from the older kids is that if they get stopped with
cannabis the police simply tell them not to smoke it in the open. They are
not even cautioned and the cannabis is not being removed." 

Blunkett is expected to announce his plans in mid-July in response to an
MPs' committee report that backed calls for the downgrading of cannabis from
class B, which means convicted users can face up to five years in prison, to
class C, which in practice triggers only a fine or a police warning. 

When he first signalled his intentions last October, Blunkett said he wanted
to free up police time so they could target heroin and crack cocaine. Both
drugs, as well as ecstasy, will remain class A drugs, meaning possession
carries a maximum sentence of seven years. 

Although Blunkett will reject the idea of medically supervised "safe
injecting rooms" for heroin addicts, he is expected to extend a scheme that
already sees some 1,500 addicts being prescribed heroin and methadone, a
heroin substitute, on the National Health Service. 

Blunkett believes that young people will not take the government's drugs
strategy seriously if the widespread practice of smoking small amounts of
cannabis continues to be treated as a serious criminal offence. 

The home secretary is expected to place an order before parliament this
autumn that could become law by December. This weekend a Home Office
spokesman said: "Nothing has come forward since the home secretary said he
was minded to reclassify cannabis to change his views." 

Although the Brixton experiment saved 1,350 hours of police work, that was
the equivalent to just two extra officers on the streets full-time. After
visiting Brixton, Asa Hutchinson, the director of the influential US Drug
Enforcement Administration, said the experiment simply encouraged more
people to smoke the drug and to do so more openly. 

Even some senior Met officers say the experiment is "significantly flawed".
Mike Fuller, head of Scotland Yard's drugs directorate, said it had left
members of the public thinking cannabis had been legalised and risked
encouraging children into drug use. 

While almost half Brixton's white residents had welcomed the scheme, the
vast majority of blacks and Asians, who had to live among "this drugs
paraphernalia", opposed it, he said.
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