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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 16:11 GMT
'No cannabis cafes for UK'
Cannabis users
Cannabis cafes increase drugs use, says government
The government's decision to ease the laws on possession of cannabis will not lead to cafes selling the drug in the UK, a senior Home Office official has insisted.

Home Office director of drug strategy Sue Killen was pressed repeatedly on the issue by MPs on the Commons Home Affairs Committee.

The questioning comes in the wake of Home Secretary David Blunkett's statement that he wants to ease the UK's drugs laws so cannabis possession will no longer be an arrestable offence.

Ex-drugs tsar Keith Hellawell was another key expert who gave evidence to the committee, arguing he had neither real power nor real support in his previous post.

Policy shift's implications

The implications of what was seen as a major shift in the government's stance on drugs were the focus of much of the first session of the committee's inquiry into drugs policy.

Ms Killen stressed that supplying cannabis will remain illegal because the evidence suggested that allowing commercial sales increased the amount of users.

"We are not talking about decriminalisation in any way, shape or form. All the sanctions will remain criminal.

There's a huge debate raging in the outside world about whether decriminalisation is or is not a good thing

Chris Mullin
Labour MP
"Within the civil system, it tends to be quite rigid, whereas within the criminal justice system, there is some discretion that remains."

Committee chairman Chris Mullin suggested Home Office officials were "in denial" over what the public were really discussing.

He told Ms Killen: "There's a huge debate raging in the outside world about whether decriminalisation is or is not a good thing."

Radical options

And Conservative MP David Cameron said it was be disappointing if the radical options were not at least examined.

Ms Killen told the committee: "To my knowledge, we haven't sat down and done a major study on decriminalisation of all drugs, including Class A."

Keith Hellawell
Hellawell says he has not been sidelined
Another Home Office drugs unit official, Vic Hogg, said successive governments had seen the harm caused by drugs as "extremely serious".

The UK was signed up to conventions that said drugs supply and production should be a criminal offence, he added.

But Mr Mullin asked the officials to return to the committee by next Thursday with a set of arguments to rebut such ideas as decriminalising drugs.

He continued: "If no-one will address these issues from among our official witnesses, how are we to proceed?"

'No decriminalisation'

Former drugs tsar Mr Hellawell said in his evidence that he had yet to meet a heroin user who had not started on cannabis, although the same was true of normal cigarettes.

Rebutting media reports earlier this year, he continued: "I have never said that I do not believe cannabis to be a gateway drug. I do not know where this story has come from."

The committee did not ask Mr Hellawell if he agreed with the decision to reclassify cannabis from a Class 'B' to a Class 'C' drug.

'No sideliniining'

Mr Hellawell has now been moved to become the government's expert adviser on drugs policy.

He denied reports that he had been sidelined by Mr Blunkett, claiming he had neither real power nor real support in his previous post.

Mr Hellawell revealed his dislike for the title "tsar".

"It did not reflect in any way the job that I had or the powers or responsibility that I did not have," he said.

"If, as has portrayed, I was there to change the world single-handedly then clearly my critics would say I failed to do that."

The BBC's Chris Ledgard
investigates the government's new drugs policy
See also:

29 Oct 01 | England
Cannabis cafe plan
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