Pubdate: Thu, 11 Jul 2002
Source: Eastern Daily Press (UK)
Copyright: 2002, Archant Regional
Author: Richard Balls
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)


Stroll along any street in Norwich or a large town in the county and
the whiff of cannabis may waft your way. Go along to a nightclub, live
music venue or certain pubs around the county, and the unmistakable
aroma of a 'spliff' or 'joint' being smoked hangs heavy in the air.

Shops sell the seeds, although it is illegal to grow them,
alternatives to cannabis are sold openly on Norwich market and through
other outlets, and packets of cannabis resin and grass can be bought
as easily as a newspaper or a pint of milk by those who use it --
young or old.

The police have long turned a blind eye to personal use of 'dope', and
those who are caught with a small lump of cannabis resin in their
pocket are rarely charged. So will the Government's headline-making
reclassification of cannabis really make any difference and is the
real issue the freeing-up of police resources?

"The only difference is that if the police catch someone with
cannabis, they will take it off them and warn them, but they won't
have to arrest them, search their house, put in all the paperwork and
go to court," said Alun Buffrey, the Norwich-based co-ordinator of the
Legalise Cannabis Alliance.

"The user won't get a criminal record, but he will still lose his
cannabis. Our concern is that in recognising people are going to use
it, they should be protected from the real problems surrounding it."

 From July next year, cannabis will be reclassified from a class B to
class C drug. Home Secretary David Blunkett and his officials were at
pains to stress yesterday that cannabis would remain illegal and that
the police would be expected to act quickly to close down pot-smoking
cafes where it was openly sold and used. But in most cases, police
officers would simply "issue a warning and seize the drugs" where
people were caught in possession.

In an effort to counter claims that he was "going soft on drugs", Mr
Blunkett said the maximum sentence for dealing class C substances
would be raised from five years to 14, even though cannabis was being
downgraded. This means that dealing in other drugs such as anabolic
steroids and certain anti-depressants would also carry a theoretical
14-year penalty.

Drugs 'tsar' Keith Hellawell handed in his resignation over the change
in attitude towards cannabis which was "moving further towards
decriminalis-ation than in any other country in the world".

Former minister Kate Hoey, whose Vauxhall constituency is in the
Metropolitan police's "softly softly" experiment, said that rolling
out that stance across the country would hit the most deprived areas.

"There are more drug dealers than ever, cannabis much more widely
available. There is a mixed message being sent out," she said.

"On the one hand we are trying to say drugs are bad and at the same
time cannabis is being seen as something that is just there, that
people are smoking."

Mr Blunkett was adamant, however, that would not be the case. "It is
important to remember that cannabis is a harmful substance that still
requires strict controls to be maintained, hence its classification as
a class C drug.

"I therefore have no intention of either decriminalising or legalising
the production, supply or possession of cannabis."

Claims by some that Mr Blunkett has in effect decriminalised cannabis
are not borne out by the reaction of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance.
The fact that people will no longer be arrested for possession, except
in certain circumstances, and may smoke the drug more openly is being
seen as a "positive step" in terms of attitude, but the lobby group
says it does not deal with many of the issues posing a threat to users.

It does not rule out the involvement of drug dealers selling this and
other more dangerous drugs or the availability of low-quality and
sometimes dangerous cannabis. Nor does it offer any protection for
users in terms of safe places where they can smoke cannabis.

"Some people who buy it are concerned about the quality of it and
about other substances being involved," said Mr Buffrey. "Some people
end up buying a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and if
there is not much cannabis around maybe they will buy something else.

"I don't want people's choices controlled, but protected. If someone
wants to take the dangerous drugs of alcohol or tobacco then they can
go out and buy it without having to deal with criminals and use it in
private without being bothered by the law.

"But if people choose to take drugs they end up in a world of crime
and have poor quality, and in some cases poisonous, stuff, and sit on
railway lines or a park, often risking their own and other people's

The relaxation of the law on cannabis is a "sensible move" in the
current climate and with the general acceptance of the usage of the
'weed' among young people, according to Penny McVeigh, chief executive
of Norcas (Norfolk Community Alcohol Services).

The rigorous marketing by dealers of hard drugs such as crack cocaine
and heroin meant that cannabis was being bypassed in many cases and it
was "not helpful" to concentrate on the link between class A and class
B drugs.

The changes announced by Mr Blunkett would allow police time and
resources to be directed at these more dangerous drugs, but it was
important that young people did not misread the change as a
'decriminalisation' of the drug as a complacency about its effects
could lead to unprotected sex or dangerous driving.

"If the Government is going to reclassify cannabis it needs to think
through how the more vulnerable people in society will receive it,"
she said.

"If young people see it as a green light, are they going to be given
appropriate information about the risks and consequences of using
cannabis and driving. If they do misunderstand and think 'it's all
right now', then they will still be at risk."

Dr Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, said: "It is clear we are on the
road to decriminalisation and the Government should not shy away from
that argument. The drugs tsar has resigned on the basis of this, so
obviously this is a pathway to decriminalisation and allowing the
police to concentrate on the real problem drugs we have in cities like

"There have been several drug busts in my constituency where hard
drugs are being peddled and I would rather the police did that than
hassle a few people over a few joints.

"It won't make much difference to the police, but it will just give
them the opportunity to ignore the hardliners who think the world will
collapse around our ears if people smoke cannabis."

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said Mr Blunkett needed to explain
whether he wanted police officers to arrest people openly selling
cannabis or simply look away. If he was effectively decriminalising
cannabis, did he still want young people to buy their supply from criminals?

"He needs to explain how it can be right to tell one set of people
that it is OK to smoke cannabis, but to tell another set of people
they may be put in prison for 10 years if they sell it," he said in
House the Commons.

The Association of Chief Police Officers said the retention of the
police power of arrest would give officers greater flexibility in
dealing with incidents on the street.

The higher maximum penalty for trafficking and the consideration of an
aggravated offence of supplying to a young person would also assist
the police, the association said.

Deputy Commissioner Ian Blair said: "We felt it important that
officers can maintain their credibility in dealing with members of the
public in possession of cannabis and that their authority on the
street is not undermined.

"Similarly, it was important to us that young people most at risk from
drugs are adequately protected." 
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