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Thursday, 25 October, 2001, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Head to head: Cannabis laws
cannabis l
The classification of cannabis looks set to change
Home Secretary David Blunkett has announced he wants the UK's laws covering cannabis to be eased so possession will no longer be an arrestable offence

Tim Johnston from the National Drug Prevention Alliance is opposed any such moves as he says this sends the wrong message to young people about what is a harmful drug.

But Steve Rolles from the drug campaign group Transform, has cautiously welcomed the changes and hopes they represent the beginning of a change in government policy.

Here they give their views on the situation.

Tim Johnston, Assistant to National Youth Co-ordinator, National Drug Prevention Alliance

The majority of young people are saying 'no' to drugs, or rather 'yes' to a healthy life, free from the trap of usage habit or addiction to drugs.

The proposed changes will make it harder for the 83% who are drug-free to remain drug-free; sending out the message that cannabis use is not harmful enough to warrant serious punishment.

Then again, if the long-term effects of cannabis were known - the cancers, loss of memory, infertility - many would think these to be punishment enough.

As teenagers, we're known to be somewhat short-sighted, thinking more about the 'feel good now' then the long-term effects, which is where the deterrent of the law is helpful.

Harmful drug

By removing this, we feel society is saying, "well, it's not that bad, you shouldn't do it but if you do we won't punish you".

Most young people actually want some guidance; we need to know what society believes to be acceptable and not acceptable so that we have a basis on which to make our decisions.

I wonder if you are aware that the main part of cannabis, THC, is a fat-soluble chemical.

Public service costs

Unlike alcohol, which is readily absorbed into the blood and filtered out of the body relatively quickly, THC soaks into the fat stores of the body.

Fatty areas (brain, surrounding the heart and other major organs) have a slow turn-over for most people so the THC is slowly being released over a long period of time - the effects of smoking a single joint can last several days, rendering someone who smokes regularly impaired at driving or other such skills.

OK, so if I can't convince you cannabis is harmful and you think it's a waste of police time, think of this.

If the police (who do a good job with limited resources) aren't helping prevent the use of cannabis, its use is likely to increase - young people aren't being provided with the boundaries to guide their behaviour.

As cannabis use increases, there will be a much greater cost to the Health Service through more accidents, more and worse cancers, and many of the problems currently faced due to tobacco though more severe and earlier in life.

Check out our website for more information on the facts quoted here.

Steve Rolles, Campaign co-ordinator, Transform

Mr Blunkett's announcement of the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C, while 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.

Reform calls

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 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, the 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.

Brixton experiment

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.

Government 'u-turn'

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 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.

See also:

23 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Cannabis laws set to be eased
23 Oct 01 | Health
How drugs are classified
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