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Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 17:01 GMT 18:01 UK
Cannabis campaigners call for more reform
Home Secretary David Blunkett's plans to ease cannabis laws to focus on harder drugs has been cautiously welcomed by the pressure group Transform.
But this should be viewed as only the beginning of a much-needed change in government policy, writes drug campaign co-ordinator Steve Rolles.
Mr Blunkett's announcement of the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C, whilst being a welcome gesture, is only a first small step in the right direction.
Transform is an organisation campaigning for all drugs to be brought under effective legal regulation and control it is important to point out that this announcement does not represent either the legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis.
Possession will remain a criminal offence, theoretically punishable with two years in prison or unlimited fine.
Production and supply will obviously remain in the hands of organised criminal networks. Only legalisation can change that.
However the result of this shift may be to effectively decriminalise cannabis possession.
If cannabis possession is a lower police priority, and is a non arrestable offence it will mean that those in possession for personal use will have little to fear from the law.
There is a precedent for this model. In a number of other European countries where the possession of cannabis remains a criminal offence, but the laws are not enforced.
In Holland small scale possession and supply is illegal but similarly tolerated within certain parameters.
This reclassification has been rumoured for some months, and follows calls for reform from a number of unlikely quarters.
These have included police authorities, Daily Telegraph editorials, and even Mo Mowlam, Minister in charge of drug policy until the last election.
Keith Morris, formerly the UK ambassador to Colombia, and Sir David Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, have gone further by publicly calling for the legalisation of all drugs.
Crucial to this latest announcement has been the recent experiment in Brixton where arrests for cannabis possession have been replaced with confiscation and a verbal warning.
This policy was described by police as a pragmatic move to make more efficient use of scarce police resources.
In reality they were only making public what has been unofficial policy for some time.
In recent years reclassification of cannabis to class C was specifically recommended by both the Runciman report (from the Police Foundation) and also the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs, the body set up under the Misuse of Drugs act to advise ministers on possible changes to legislation.
On both occasions the proposal was rejected by the government.
The arguments for changing the law on cannabis are fairly mainstream now and this U-turn by the government seems to be in response to opinion polls rather than listening to expert opinion.
Drug policy in this country has historically been driven by political expediency rather than evidence or common sense.
So what may seem a radical departure for this government is in reality hardly groundbreaking.
This reclassification will not even bring us into line with most of our European neighbours who are generally far more pragmatic about drugs policy reform.
Portugal, Spain, and Italy for example have effectively decriminalised personal possession of all drugs.
What this announcement will mean in practical terms is not clear but it is unlikely to be very significant.
People who want to use cannabis already do.
It will possibly help police relations with young people and communities and will certainly free up police for other activities.
Transform would like to see the cannabis legalised as soon as possible so that a substantial debate can begin on the far more important issue of how we address the destructive illegal markets for heroin and cocaine.
Hopefully this move signals the beginning of the end of the drug war in its current form.
Let us hope that this move will open up opportunities to further dismantle the criminal justice focused system that serves only to fill the coffers of organised criminals and terrorists.
We urgently need to replace it with a system that manages, controls and regulates the drug trade in a just and effective manner.
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