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Thursday, 11 July, 2002, 00:34 GMT 01:34 UK
Cannabis laws eased by Blunkett
David Blunkett
Mr Blunkett's move sparked controversy
Cannabis is to be reclassified as a less dangerous drug to free-up police resources to fight hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine, Home Secretary David Blunkett has announced.

He unveiled the controversial measure in the House of Commons just hours after the government's former "drugs czar" Keith Hellawell said he had quit his role as a government adviser in protest.


I will seek to reclassify cannabis as a class C drug by July of next year

David Blunkett
It came shortly after Tony Blair defended the move during prime minister's question time.

Mr Blunkett also announced that the controversial cannabis experiment, currently under way in London's Brixton, would be extended across London.

The decision to reclassify cannabis was in response to a report by MPs arguing that drugs policy should focus on tackling the problems caused by heroin addicts.

'Drugs are dangerous'

The change will put cannabis on a par with anti-depressants and steroids. Possession of small amounts would no longer be considered an arrestable offence.

Mr Blunkett countered suggestions that he was going "soft on drugs" by saying police would retain the power to arrest marijuana users in certain "aggravated" cases, such as when the drug is smoked near children.


We will not legalise or decriminalise any drugs, nor do we envisage a time when this will be appropriate

David Blunkett
He raised the maximum sentence for dealers of class B and C drugs from five years to 14 years

An education campaign will be launched, targeted at young people and emphasising that "all drugs are harmful and class A drugs are killers".

"There will be an increasing focus on class A drugs," the home secretary said.

No legalisation

"The message is clear - drugs are dangerous. We will educate, persuade and where necessary, direct young people away from their use.

"We will not legalise or decriminalise any drugs, nor do we envisage a time when this will be appropriate."

Mr Blunkett placed heavy emphasis on the importance of drug treatment.

The committee recommended moving Ecstasy from class A to B, but Mr Blunkett rejected this, stressing: "It kills".

"I will seek to reclassify cannabis as a class C drug by July of next year."

'Muddled, dangerous policy'

"Cannabis possession remains a criminal offence. I am determined that the police are able to control the streets and uphold order," he said.

But shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin criticised the reclassification, warning that Mr Blunkett was handing control of cannabis to dealers.

The idea proposed by Mr Blunkett was a "muddled, dangerous policy" and would lead to an "open season for drug peddlers", he said.

Roger Howard, chief executive of DrugScope, welcomed the measure but warned that the arrest powers in "aggravated" cases might "sow confusion in people's minds".

Mr Blunkett said the Association of Chief Police Officers would shortly issue national guidance that in the vast majority of cases "officers will confiscate the drugs and use warnings".

Shooting galleries

He stressed: "Police time saved will be refocused on class A drugs."

The government signalled its intention to downgrade cannabis last October.

Keith Hellawell
Mr Hellawell has fallen out with the home secretary
Since then, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, comprising medical experts, and the all-party select committee have both backed the idea.

On other drugs Mr Blunkett said he accepted that expansion of "managed" prescriptions for heroin users will be necessary.

But he was not persuaded by the argument for "shooting galleries" - places where people take hard drugs in a safe environment.

'Damage communities'

"We will clamp down on the dealers who prey on the young," he said.

Earlier, former "drugs czar" Keith Hellawell said he handed in his notice in protest at plans to move cannabis to a lower category.

He launched a stinging attack on the proposals, which he claims will damage communities and lead to more drug use.

But the Home Office insisted Mr Hellawell supported the move when it was first floated last year.

Mr Hellawell, meanwhile, says he had made his reservations known to Mr Blunkett at a meeting last autumn.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"The government insists it is not being soft on drugs but realistic"
Home Secretary David Blunkett
"[Cannabis] is not as harmful as class A drugs which kill"
Brian Parker, Brixton Residents' Association
"Our estate is literally surrounded by drug dealers"
See also:

10 Jul 02 | UK Politics
10 Jul 02 | UK Politics
10 Jul 02 | UK
10 Jul 02 | Business
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