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Tuesday, May 19, 1998 Published at 17:34 GMT

Legalising cannabis - a potted history

In 1968, the Wootton Report, a Home Office investigation into the effects of cannabis, concluded: "There is no evidence that this activity is causing violent crime or aggression, anti-social behaviour, or is producing in otherwise normal people conditions of dependence or psychosis requiring medical treatment."

Nearly 30 years on, it is still illegal to grow, produce, possess or supply the drug to another person, even if you are a doctor. It is also an offence to allow premises to be used for growing, preparing, supplying or smoking cannabis.

Despite the legal situation, it is estimated that regular users of the drug consume 800 tonnes every year and spend 3.5bn on it. If caught, offenders risk a maximum penalty of 14 years for trafficking in Class B drugs, and for possession, 5 years imprisonment.

Home Office research indicates that the number of people between the ages of 16 and 59 who have used cannabis has doubled in the past decade to 4 million, and that most people now regard the use of soft drugs as a normal part of growing up. Given its illegality, most analysts agree that government surveys probably underestimate the extent of drug-taking as people are reluctant to admit their use.

Therapeutic uses

According to a report by the British Medical Association last year, there are medicinal reasons for the use of cannabis that should be tolerated by police and prosecutors. The report, "Therapeutic uses of Cannabis", identified certain medical conditions where symptoms which could not be alleviated with prescribed medication, could be treated successfully with cannabis products.

There is apparently little danger of a fatal overdose: according to animal experiments, it has been calculated that it would take at least a pound and a half of cannabis to kill a human, around 100 times as much as the weekly consumption of a heavy user.

While authorities agree that cannabis has few harmful side-effects, the argument that it can lead to the use of harder drugs is a powerful one. On the other hand, pro-legalisation campaigners argue that the illegal status of drugs such as cannabis encourages people to experiment with other underground drugs.

Maintaining the Labour Party's election manifesto pledge to tackle the drugs problem, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has taken a hard line on the use of 'soft' drugs. In a recent interview, he described people who advocate the de-criminalisation or legalisation of cannabis as "irresponsible".

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