Pubdate: Thu, 22 Jan 2004
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: The Scotsman Publications Ltd 2004
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)


Tory leader Michael Howard today refused to say whether he had ever
smoked cannabis after denouncing the Government's decision to
downgrade the drug as "absurd".

Mr Howard, who has pledged that a future Conservative government would
reverse the policy, was challenged by Home Secretary David Blunkett to
reveal whether he had used cannabis in the past.

The row intensified as a UKP 1 million Government advertising campaign
was launched to remind the public that the drug will be reclassified
from Class B to Class C next week.

The change, which will place cannabis alongside anabolic steroids and
prescription anti-biotics, means police will rarely make arrests for
possession of small amounts of the drug.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Howard said: "After thinking
about this very carefully, we have come to the view that the
Government's decision is completely misconceived and when we return to
office, we will reclassify cannabis back to Class B."

Mr Blunkett's changes introduced a "muddle" which would send a signal
to young people that cannabis was legal and safe, when it was not,
said the Tory leader.

But Mr Blunkett dismissed the criticism.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "Two years ago I
said we want a sensible mature debate, we are actually having one now,
because at least people are debating the issue sensibly.

"Let's ask him (Mr Howard) 'Did you ever smoke it?"'

Mr Blunkett was asked whether he himself ever smoked

He replied: "No I never smoked cannabis. But if I had, I would be
quite transparent about it because 40-odd per cent of under
30-year-olds have.

"I don't want to actually end up chasing them rather than actually
chasing the dealers and the people who kill young people with crack
and heroin."

Asked what his response would be if Mr Howard said he had smoked
cannabis, Mr Blunkett said: "I would say fine, thanks for being
honest, now what would you have done to you? What would your parents
have said if we had picked you up for smoking it, criminalised you and
had you banged up in jail?"

But Mr Howard later refused to say if he had used cannabis.

Speaking on a visit to a college in St Albans, Herts, he said: "I take
exactly the same view on it as the Government took in October 2000
when every Cabinet minister was asked. They all said it was not an
appropriate question to answer."

Mr Howard said if he did answer the question the entire shadow cabinet
would then face similar interrogation.

The Tory leader said there was "a respectable" case for legalising
cannabis, although he did not accept it. The way forward was to keep
the current law which made it absolutely clear the use of cannabis was

He said the Government's plans sent out a "confused, muddled signal"
and it was now having to spend UKP 1 million of taxpayers' money
trying to clear up the confusion.

Shadow home secretary David Davis said: "The Home Secretary has said
that if the reclassification of cannabis does not work, he is not
prepared to consider reversing the policy.

"This is an unbelievably arrogant statement to make.

"We need a grown-up debate on drugs, but David Blunkett won't have

Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said the Government's
decision was taken as a result of advice from the Advisory Committee
on the Misuse of Drugs to acknowledge that cannabis was harmful but
less harmful than other class B drugs such as amphetamines.

The spokesman added: "It's important to recognise equally that we are
not saying that by re-classifying cannabis that it is safe.

"It remains an illegal drug and is of course harmful. The police will
ensure those who repeatedly flout the law are arrested.

"But what this is about is allowing police to concentrate their
efforts on drugs that do most harm, namely the class A drugs.

"No-one is saying that cannabis is safe, no-one is saying that
cannabis is legal but what people do recognise is that cannabis is not
the same as heroin and there are finite resources the police have in
terms of tackling drugs and we think it is sensible and right to
tackle those drugs that do most harm in society."

The advertising campaign beginning today is designed to send the
message that cannabis will remain illegal after it is downgraded on
January 29.

Radio adverts targeted at young people will be played on 48 national
and regional commercial radio stations across England, while leaflets
and information packs will be sent out to schools drug advisors, drug
action teams, drug charities, health organisations and student unions.

Adverts and leaflets in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be
tailored to fit their existing campaigns.

Doctors have voiced concern over the reclassification, with the
British Medical Association (BMA) warning that chronic cannabis
smoking can increase the likelihood of heart disease, lung cancer,
bronchitis and emphysema, while psychiatrists have linked the drug to
cases of psychosis.

The British Lung Foundation said it welcomed the Government's new
advertising campaign on the reclassification issue, but also reminded
people of the health risks involved.

Chief executive Dame Helena Shovelton said: "Research carried out by
the charity found that smoking cannabis alone can cause severe lung

"We understand that some people with long-term chronic conditions may
smoke cannabis for medicinal purposes but it is vital that people are
fully aware of the dangers so they can make an educated choice and
know the damage they may be causing."
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