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Tuesday, June 8, 1999 Published at 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK

UK Politics

Drug czar backs medical cannabis

A campaigner takes part in a cannabis experiment

The government's drug czar, Keith Hellawell, has told BBC News Online he supports the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Keith Hellawell: "This country is leading research to see the effects of cannabis derivatives"
He also said it would not be "a tragedy" if one of his six grandchildren experimented with drugs.

Mr Hellawell said the government was working hard to complete tests on cannabis, which could make it available to cancer patients and others.

"I support the use of cannabis on medical grounds," he said. "I also have a great deal of sympathy because I've met a lot of people who have got genuine illnesses and feel that this substances can help them."

[ image: Keith Hellawell:
Keith Hellawell: "I support the use of cannabis on medical grounds"
But the drug czar said cannabis could not be made available on prescription immediately as tests had to be completed first.

He added that it appeared the "active" element of cannabis, known as THC, may not be the component responsible for pain relief.

"We're leading in this country in supporting medical and clinical research to see the effects of cannabis derivatives in the treatment in a broad range of ailments," he said.

The 'myth' about legalisation

The drug czar said he did not expect cannabis to be legalised at any point in the foreseeable future.

Keith Hellawell: "Unless all drugs were freely available, you would still have a marketplace"
Even the Netherlands had signed a United Nations treaty opposing making any drugs freely available, while decriminalisation in that country had not solved the problem.

"If we take Holland the restricted use of drugs in Holland has not undermined the drug economy.

[ image: The Dutch approach to cannabis has not reduced crime, the drug czar argues]
The Dutch approach to cannabis has not reduced crime, the drug czar argues
"They have got substantial problems with drugs dealers who deal in other substances. There's a myth that if we legalise a substance it would somehow take the illegality out of it."

Mr Hellawell said he did not see any benefits in Britain following the Dutch model, although he would not say it had failed.

"We have a system where the police are able to caution people rather than take them to court - that is not the case in Holland or in other countries. So each country deals with it in its own way."

He rejected the suggestion he might have a different opinion without the influence of politicians such as Prime Minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary Jack Straw.

"Not at all, I advise them," he said. "My position is adviser to the prime minister and the government of Great Britain, so they're following my advice."

'Not a normal part of childhood'

The drug czar rejected the notion of a "slippery slope" from cannabis use to drugs that, in his phrase, cause "most harm" - heroin and cocaine.

[ image: Leah Betts died after taking ecstasy: The consequences of experimentation can be tragic]
Leah Betts died after taking ecstasy: The consequences of experimentation can be tragic
"I used to be able to say I'd never met a heroin addict who hadn't started with smoking cannabis. That's now not the case."

He admitted it would not necessarily be a tragedy if a young person, such as one of his grandchildren, tried drugs.

But he pointed out using drugs even once could have tragic consequences, including death.

"It may not be a tragedy. I don't think it's a normal part of growing up.

"I do take issue with this idea that drugs are normal for young people. I speak to a lot of audiences of young people and they'd get very cross if I said that because the majority of young people still do not use drugs."

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