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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 07:48 GMT 08:48 UK
Cannabis laws to be relaxed
David Blunkett and cannabis graphics
David Blunkett has insisted that moves to slacken UK laws on cannabis do not signal any intention to decriminalise the drug.

The home secretary told a Commons committee on Tuesday of his wish to re-classify cannabis from a class 'B' to a class 'C' drug, putting it on a par with anabolic steroids.


There is no intention by me, or by other ministers or the prime minister, that we legalise or decriminalise

David Blunkett
The proposals - to be put before the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs - have been welcomed by the pro-cannabis lobby.

But anti-drugs campaigners fear the move will encourage drug use and cause health problems.

Mr Blunkett says the aim is to free police to concentrate on harder drugs and improve current legislation.

He said the move "avoided the absurdity of 68% of police time going on cannabis actually to no effect".

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.

But Mr Blunkett insisted on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday: "I think that it is very important that people don't misunderstand.

"There is no intention by me, or by other ministers or the prime minister, that we legalise or decriminalise."

Police resources

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.


This is a good step in the right direction

Former Tory deputy leader Peter Lilley
Mr Blunkett announced the shift while giving evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.

"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."

He said it would allow police to "concentrate their resources" on class 'A' drugs such as crack-cocaine and heroin.

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

He said the re-categorisation of cannabis was supported by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, and "many of those engaged in law enforcement across the country".

If the advisory committee reports back within three months, Mr Blunkett could make a final decision on the proposals next spring.

Dealer's charter

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

Professor John Henry, of St Mary's Hospital warned cannabis was harmful and could affect people's ability to manage their lives and affect memory.

Cannabis cigarette being rolled
Anti drugs campaigners fear the move will encourage drug use
Gail McKann, of Mothers Against Drugs, believes it will encourage young people to ruin their health.

"Up until now everything we have heard from the government is about a war on drugs," she said.

"This makes a mockery of everything they have said."

Legalisation

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."

But Tory MP Peter Lilley says the government should have the courage to go further and back legalisation of cannabis.

"Break the link between the supply of cannabis and the supply of hard drugs," he said.

"By leaving cannabis still illegal it means people can only get it from the same criminal gangs that are likely to push hard drugs on young people."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"Cannabis users celebrated the announcement"
Home Secretary David Blunkett
"It is very important that people don't misunderstand"
Glen Smyth, Metropolitan Police Federation
"No one should be under the illusion that it's a risk free drug"
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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