HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Cannabis Is Now Just A Signature Away From Legitimacy.
Pubdate: Sun, 10 Mar 2002
Source: Independent on Sunday (UK)
Copyright: Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Author: Sophie Goodchild, Home Affairs Correspondent


Relax Law, Say Government Advisers; Reform Would Be First For 30 Years; Lib 
Dems Vote For Legalisation

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, will be told this week by his official 
panel of drug advisers to downgrade cannabis from a Class B to a Class C 
drug. The change, which would enable users to smoke a joint in the street 
without fear of arrest, would be the first relaxation of drug laws in 
Britain for 30 years.

Yesterday, in a separate initiative, the Liberal Democrats became the first 
major political party to vote for the full legalisation of cannabis. They 
also voted for an end to prison sentences for those caught in possession of 
other drugs, including cocaine, ecstasy and heroin, and called for ecstasy 
to be downgraded from a Class A to a Class B drug.

The vote came as the Home Office considers recommendations from the 
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) that cannabis should be 
given the same status as prescription tranquillizers such as valium, making 
its possession a non-arrestable offence.

A source close to Mr Blunkett said last night the Home Secretary was now 
"minded" to downgrade the drug. The advisory committee is considered the 
authoritative voice on drugs classification and it would be unusual for the 
Home Secretary to ignore its advice. The committee's findings will increase 
pressure on Mr Blunkett to make a formal announcement of the reform the 
laws on cannabis. A senior government source told The Independent on 
Sunday: "He [the Home Secretary] said he was minded to do it [reclassify 
cannabis]. He will make a final decision when all of the information is in 
front of him."

As well as the committee's research, there are at least four other studies 
being carried out into the policing of cannabis which are expected to be 
presented to the Government over the next two months.

Next Wednesday, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will reveal that up to 
UKP50m a year is spent on policing cannabis and the time this involves is 
equivalent to the work of 500 police officers a year. The Metropolitan 
Police and the Police Foundation are also compiling separate reports into a 
pilot scheme by police in Lambeth, south London.

Originally planned to last six months, senior officers have found the 
scheme in Brixton, where cannabis users are not arrested but given 
on-the-spot warnings, to be successful enough to warrant extending for the 
time being.

An inquiry into drugs, including cannabis, is also being carried out by 
members of the Home Affairs select committee who are expected to report to 
the Government this April.

The debate over downgrading cannabis gained momentum last October when Mr 
Blunkett announced that he had decided in favour of changing the law. He 
proposed to end the power of police to arrest people caught with the drug 
for their own use. This was partly so that officers could concentrate on 
hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. His decision to change the drug laws 
was announced to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

At the time, the Home Secretary emphasised that he was not decriminalising 
or legalising cannabis. "Cannabis would remain a controlled drug and using 
it a criminal offence," he said. "In spite of our focus on hard drugs, the 
majority of police time is currently spent on handling cannabis offences. 
It is time for an honest and common-sense approach focusing on drugs that 
cause most harm."

The Home Secretary commissioned the ACMD to report on the medical and 
social impact of cannabis. Their report was completed several weeks ago but 
has been held on to by the Home Office.

Drugs charities and experts say they welcome the committee's report.

Roger Howard, chief executive of DrugScope, said he wanted the Government 
to promise that there would be no fines or cautions for personal possession 
of the drug.

"If this report is true, then DrugScope warmly welcomes it," he added. 
"It's refreshing to see a Home Secretary at last moving towards a sensible, 
logical and evidence-based drugs policy."

Viscountess Runciman, a former member of the committee and campaigner for 
reform, said this was a "very significant development".

"This is not to say cannabis is a harmless drug," she added. "It does 
remain a controlled drug. There is still a lot of incoherence in our laws. 
This will bring the law in line with Brixton."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom