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Thursday, 11 July, 2002, 08:56 GMT 09:56 UK
Blunkett stands by cannabis shift
David Blunkett
Mr Blunkett's move sparked controversy
David Blunkett is standing by controversial plans to re-classify cannabis as a less harmful drug.

In my view the experiment in my constituency was not a success

Kate Hoey, Labour MP
The home secretary wants to free up police resources to tackle hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

But the move has come in for fierce criticism from the Conservatives and some Labour backbenchers.

Critics - including the government's former drugs czar Keith Hellawell - say it will send out a confusing message to young people and encourage drug use.

Brixton 'not a success'

Mr Blunkett insists there is sound logic behind his decision to reclassify cannabis, which is nothing like as dangerous as harder drugs.

We felt it important that officers can maintain their credibility

Ian Blair, Metropolitan Police
Appearing on BBC Radio 5 Live, Mr Blunkett was asked where people should buy cannabis.

He said: "They shouldn't, because it is illegal.

"Secondly, it is dangerous, but it is nowhere near as dangerous in terms of killing people as crack is or heroin, and it does not destroy people in the same way."

The home secretary is believed to have been influenced by the softer line on cannabis taken by police in London's Brixton, as part of a controversial pilot scheme.

Mr Blunkett said the experiment, which has seen an increase in arrests of hard drug dealers, will now be extended across London.

But Labour former minister Kate Hoey, in whose Vauxhall constituency the experiment is taking place, said it was not a success.

She told MPs: "There are more drug dealers than ever and there are more people using cannabis."

Parents' warnings

She added: "Whatever the experts are saying, the message that is going to families across the country is very stark and very uncomfortable - that cannabis is OK no matter how strong it is and no matter how it is taken."

Keith Hellawell
Mr Hellawell attacked the plan
The plan to downgrade cannabis to a Class C drug was attacked as "muddled and dangerous" by shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin.

But Mr Blunkett said he had been convinced to make the change by speaking to families.

"It was families who told me of the way in which they had told their children that all drugs were the same and all drugs had the same impact.

"And when their young people had taken cannabis and found this was not the case and when their parents then told them of the dangers of crack they didn't believe them."

'Greater flexibility'

Mr Blunkett's announcement was welcomed by Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Ian Blair.

"We felt it important that officers can maintain their credibility in dealing with members of the public in possession of cannabis and that their authority on the street is not undermined.

The Association of Chief Police Officers' drugs spokesman Andy Hayman said: "The retention of the police power of arrest will enable the police to have greater flexibility in dealing with incidents on the street."

Press reaction

Mr Blunkett's plan has received a mixed reaction in the press.

Conservative MP Boris Johnson, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said there was a contradiction at the heart of Mr Blunkett's strategy, which bans cannabis but tells young people smoking it is "OK".

The Sun accuses Mr Blunkett of "gambling with our children", while the Times said the policy would sow confusion.

But the move was welcomed by the Daily Mirror, the Guardian and the Independent.

Tougher sentencing

The decision to reclassify cannabis was in response to a report by MPs arguing that drugs policy should focus on tackling the problems caused by heroin addicts.

The change will put cannabis on a par with anti-depressants and steroids.

Possession of small amounts would no longer be considered an arrestable offence.

Police will retain the power to arrest marijuana users in certain "aggravated" cases, such as when the drug is smoked near children.

Mr Blunkett will also raise the maximum sentence for dealers of class B and C drugs from five years to 14 years

'Shooting galleries'

An education campaign will be launched, targeted at young people and emphasising that "all drugs are harmful and class A drugs are killers".

Mr Blunkett also placed heavy emphasis on the importance of drug treatment.

The committee recommended moving Ecstasy from class A to B, but Mr Blunkett rejected this, stressing: "It kills".

On other drugs Mr Blunkett said he accepted that expansion of "managed" prescriptions for heroin users will be necessary.

But he was not persuaded by the argument for "shooting galleries" - places where people take hard drugs in a safe environment.

Earlier, former "drugs czar" Keith Hellawell said he handed in his notice in protest at plans to move cannabis to a lower category.

David Blunkett
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