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Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK
Cannabis laws set to be eased
David Blunkett and cannabis graphics
Home Secretary David Blunkett has announced he wants the UK's laws covering cannabis to be eased so possession will no longer be an arrestable offence

The drug would remain illegal under Mr Blunkett's proposals but be re-classified from a class 'B' to a class 'C' drug.

We believe it is right to look at the re-categorisation of cannabis

David Blunkett
The aim is to free police to concentrate on harder drugs and improve current legislation so it will "make more sense" to people on the street, he said.

In a parallel move, licensing of cannabis derivatives for medical use - such as the relief of multiple sclerosis symptoms - will be given government backing if current trials prove successful.

Cannabis possession and supply would remain a criminal offence, attracting maximum sentences of five years for supply and two years for possession.

But rather than arresting people caught with cannabis, police will be more likely to issue a warning, a caution or a court summons.

Police resources

Mr Blunkett announced the shift while giving evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.

He told MPs: "To have credible policy in treatment and harm minimisation and above all consistency in law enforcement and policing, we believe it is right to look at the re-categorisation of cannabis.

"I shall therefore be putting to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs a proposal that we should re-categorise cannabis to 'C' rather than 'B', thereby allowing police to concentrate their resources on class 'A' drugs - crack-cocaine and heroin in particular - and to ensure that whilst they are able to deal with those pushing and dealing in drugs in exactly the same way as they can at the moment, it will both lighten their load and make more sense on the streets than it does at the moment."

This is a good step in the right direction

Former Tory deputy leader Peter Lilley
Mr Blunkett said the re-categorisation was supported by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, and "many of those engaged in law enforcement across the country".

Re-categorisation of cannabis was one of the recommendations in a Police Foundation report by Lady Runciman last year, roundly rejected by the government at the time.

Mr Blunkett said he would not be following her other calls to downgrade LSD and ecstasy as well.

And he added that he was not in favour of either de-criminalising or legalising cannabis, particularly as debate on its status as a "gateway" to harder drugs was so far inconclusive.

Move welcomed

Lady Runciman called the home secretary's move "very sensible and welcome".

"It will make the law much more credible with a much more accurate hierarchy of drugs," she said.

Mr Blunkett could look forward to almost certain approval for the change from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Lady Runciman added.

Conservative former home secretary Ann Widdecombe said she was concerned it could signal a more tolerant attitude official towards cannabis and become a "dealer's charter".

Former health minister Jon Owen Jones, whose bill to legalise cannabis comes before the House of Commons on Friday, said: "This is the first step towards a sensible drug policy as well as an acknowledgement that the present policies are not working."

'Attitudes will change'

Mike Goodman, director of national drug and alcohol advice charity Release, called it "a Berlin Wall-type development" likely to herald many changes in society's attitude to drugs.

The Medical Marijuana Co-operative, a group campaigning for cannabis to be prescribed for medical conditions, called Mr Blunkett's announcement "decriminalisation through the back door".

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said: "The announcement on cannabis is welcome but it is extraordinary that it has taken so long."

The Conservatives, undergoing a detailed policy review, said they had "noted" Mr Blunkett's announcement.

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"Cannabis users celebrated the announcement"
Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe
"I would not want to see this turn into a dealer's charter"
Labour MP Paul Flynn
"This is the most important news on drugs for 30 years"
Roger Howard of Drugscope
"I think our members would wholely endorse the home secretary's decision"
See also:

23 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Q & A: Cannabis reclassification
23 Oct 01 | UK Politics
New role for Hellawell
23 Oct 01 | Health
How drugs are classified
08 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Tory admission sparks dope debate
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