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Thursday, 25 October, 2001, 15:47 GMT 16:47 UK
Dame Ruth Runciman on cannabis reforms
Dame Ruth Runciman chaired the independent inquiry into the misuse of drugs. She joined us for a live forum and answered a selection of your questions

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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The penalties for supplying or possessing cannabis have been drastically reduced in the UK. The move marks an unprecedented turnaround in government policy.

Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that cannabis will remain illegal, although it is to be reclassified from a class 'B' to a class 'C' drug.

The drug law reforms are largely due to the recommendations of Dame Ruth Runciman. She served as chair of the Police Foundation independent inquiry into the misuse of drugs.

The inquiry's report Drugs and the Law, published in March of last year, proposed that cannabis possession should be made a non-arrestable offence, with appropriate penalties such as warnings, cautions or court summonses.

These recommendations have now been adopted by the Home Secretary.

Has the government made the right decision in relaxing the drug laws? Should cannabis be decriminalised completely? Or is this a step in the wrong direction?


Transcript:


Newshost:

Before we go to the questions what were your findings so we can give some context to what we will be talking about?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

We made 81 recommendations for change to the Misuse of Drugs Act but our most far-reaching recommendations were in relation to cannabis and they were intended to be because we felt that this is where the law was most in need of both updating and significant reform.


Newshost:

Simon Soaper, England: Can I start smoking joints in public now or do I have to wait for the legislation to change?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

The answer to that is you can't start smoking joints in public now and even if the Home Secretary's recommendation that he is minded to reclassify cannabis and to make possession of small amounts no longer an arrestable offence - it will still be an offence, it will still be illegal to consume it in public and you will not be free to smoke it in public. If you do and the police see you, they will remove it from you and they will have a wide range of things that they could do - from naming you to cautioning you to prosecuting you.


Newshost:

The rules are one thing but the practice we know is quite different. If you go to party and even in the street you can smoke sometimes - people do it. Do the police and do the legal authorities really take much notice?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

Well, it's worth saying that of the offences against the Misuse of Drugs Act - these are very round figures as I don't have them to hand - of the 120,000 offences against the Misuse of Drugs Act every year, 90% of those which are dealt with are possession offences and three-quarters of those are cannabis possession offences. Now over half of those cannabis possession offences are cautions but it is worth remembering that a caution does bring with it an entry as a criminal record.


Newshost:

But are the police keen to prosecute when they have more pressing concerns?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

The police have been very sensible in many ways about their approach to policing the Misuse of Drugs Act. I think without their massive use of discretion, it would have ground to a halt. But by definition discretion brings with it inconsistency. So one of the welcome things is - and the Home Secretary's information is that there will be change - that it is likely that the police will adopt a more consistent and more formal approach to how they handle possession on the streets.


Newshost:

Ian, England: What have you got to say about the effects of cannabis on the user such as the increased risk of lung cancer and the impairment on the individual during day-to-day activities such as driving?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

I am not a scientist and I am not about to start declaiming on the medical issues. The thing to say is that none of this is about the safety of cannabis - cannabis is not a harmless drug. One of the purposes of getting cannabis right in the law is to start levelling with young people so they actually believe us when we tell them about relative risks - less than where it is at the moment but not harmless.

What the experts - of which I am not one - say is that there are short-term risks of intoxication which can impair both one's motor and one's cognitive functions and there are long-term risks of regular use that can lead to dependence. Those are two important things for young people to recognise while one also recognises that smoking the occasional joint is not necessarily going to do anything very serious. They need to believe us because if they don't believe us on this they won't believe us about the much more serious messages they need to take in about heroin and cocaine.


Newshost:

Sidra Gifford, USA: What could be done next to make drug use as safe as possible? Has there been any serious consideration of organized drug testing, as is done with Ecstasy in the Netherlands?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

We looked with interest at blood testing in Netherlands. We have a problem in this country because we have an offence - a premises offence - which says that it is an offence for the owner or a manager of premises knowingly to suffer or permit the use of cannabis and opium on their premises and this is in the process of being extended to all drugs. For an owner or a manager of premises to allow testing of drugs would be, I think, tantamount to knowingly permitting or suffering. So we have a real problem about testing which we looked at and of course in terms of harm reduction something that at some point should be considered if our law really allowed for it.


Newshost:

Dan Stewart, Englishman in US: How many man-hours of police time will this proposed move free up? If they no longer have to deal with drug possession offences, will it make a real difference to their visibility on the streets?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

One of the things the Commander of Lambeth Police - Commander Brian Paddick has been saying about the very interesting pilot that is going on in Brixton is that a caution - which is the major disposal for cannabis possession at present, can take up to five hours of two policemen's time, by the time you've arrested somebody and taken them back to the police station and made the necessary recording. What I don't know is what formal warning is being done now in Brixton and how long that is taking. But the argument is that it will free up very substantial amounts of police time. Whether that will go to visibility on the streets or pursuing more serious crimes that are not necessarily taking place on the streets I don't know but it will certainly free up police resources.


Newshost:

A lawyer from the UK, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: I have used cannabis for about 13 years during which time I obtained a first class degree and qualified as a lawyer. Do you think that the time will ever come when people like me - who cannabis has clearly not harmed - no longer be treated as criminals?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

In a sense, the answer to that one is yes, it will and it has come in the sense that in Brixton, if you were found in possession - you would get a formal warning at the moment and it wouldn't go towards a criminal record. But on the other side of that coin, the fact remains that cannabis is a controlled drug and its possession remains a criminal offence and under our international treaty obligations that would be very, very difficult to change. There is widespread belief that the Dutch have legalised cannabis - they haven't done so.


Newshost:

Yasin A, UK: This is a step in the right direction, especially for those who are suffering from cancer and MS. Should we now think about having legal suppliers, who are licensed, for medical use?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

Yes, is the answer to that and there will have to be a lot of hard thought about what is prescribed, how it is prescribed and how it is obtained by those people who will have a genuine need for it. These trials that are going on - the Home Secretary has indicated that this is, as it were, on the horizon - there will need to be quite a lot of hard thought about how its prescribed and obtained by patients.


Newshost:

Darren Hughes, England: Would it be a good idea for the Government to decriminalise cannabis in order to raise additional taxes towards the NHS?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

Well my personal answer to that is - it's not on. It's not only my personal answer, at the moment under our treaty obligations, the Government could not decriminalise cannabis. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about what decriminalisation means - decriminalisation means removing it as a criminal offence from the books. There are many people who think it would be a good idea - as there are those criminal people who traffick in it and what is happening is that the Government is losing huge amounts of revenue because the supply of cannabis is illegal.


Newshost:

I suppose then we have to differentiate between the suppliers - those who use it for business and those who use it for recreational use. I suppose they would say - in the latter category - they are not harming themselves or anybody else.


Dame Ruth Runciman:

Yes. One of the Police Foundation report's recommendations - one of the ones that is quite important and certainly isn't anywhere, as far as I can see, on the scene at the moment, is that we thought that the cultivation of small amounts of cannabis for personal use should be dealt with in the same way as we recommend possession of small amounts for personal use should be dealt with i.e. not arrestable and on the whole not prosecuted but dealt with out of court in a non-criminal fashion.


Newshost:

How does Britain's regard of the use of cannabis - as a supplier and as a recreational user - compare with other countries in the European Union and abroad?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

At the moment, until our law changes, we have after all for personal use - in theory on the statute book - five years potential imprisonment for a simple possession of cannabis. Now that, I think I am accurate in saying, is more harsh than almost any other country in Europe. I am not aware that there has ever been a prison sentence of anything approaching that for the simple possession of cannabis. In fact, the average length of a custodial sentence for any possession, including heroin and cocaine, is four months at the moment whereas for heroin and cocaine you could get seven years in theory. So there is a huge gap. One of the good things about the Home Secretary's - as it was stated - possible intention is that it will close the gap between what the law says and what it does.


Newshost:

Richard Holding, England: People want to take drugs and you cannot stop that. Do you think that cannabis and all other illegal drugs should be legalised as it causes more harm by banning them?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

My personal view about that is no. I don't happen to believe in legalisation - I think that there are really very substantial risks in increased prevalence. But we don't have the evidence base for that which is why I believe in an incremental approach which is what these recommendations would produce on the middle ground between legalisation - which is not a realistic option at the moment in any case as I said before about our international treaty obligations and what our questioner does, which is an unwinnable war on drugs. I don't believe the eradication of drugs use is either achievable or sensible and we say so in the report.


Newshost:

Not with all drugs but certainly with drugs like cannabis - you wouldn't get people trying to go underground or trying to get them in nefarious ways. If you were open about it then it would take away the novelty factor wouldn't it?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

We've had some very strong arguments - the legalisers, as you know, have been vocal and persuasive and have got their arguments well marshalled - the fact that I don't personally prescribe to it is neither here nor there. We didn't recommend that in our inquiry report because we didn't see it as either a realistic option at the moment or a wholly responsible one at this stage. We saw that there's a responsible approach and that is the incremental one.


Newshost:

Michael, Edinburgh: Do you think solvent abuse is a bigger problem at the moment in Britain, than alcohol abuse?


Dame Ruth Runciman:

In terms of such figures as we have, clearly not. Alcohol abuse an enormous problem and is one that we beginning to give and need to give much more attention than we do. We don't have a national alcohol strategy, as we have a national drug strategy. But there is no doubt that solvent abuse is a not inconsiderable problem - solvents are not a controlled drug although there are quite stringent regulations around what can be sold, to what age people by retailers. But it is a not insignificant problem and the deaths related to solvent misuse are something we really are quite seriously concerned about.

 VOTE RESULTS
Should Cannabis laws be relaxed?

Yes
 77.46% 

No
 22.54% 

5607 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

See also:

24 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Cannabis laws to be relaxed
24 Oct 01 | Scotland
Mother's fury at cannabis plan
24 Oct 01 | Business
Cannabis free-up boosts drug firm
24 Oct 01 | UK
Cannabis: the UK's story
06 Jul 01 | UK
Q & A: The dope on cannabis
09 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Cannabis: What if it were legal?
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