8th October 2000
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has become the first leader of a mainstream party to call for the decriminalisation of cannabis.
Speaking after the revelation that seven members of the Shadow Cabinet had smoked cannabis as young people, Mr Kennedy said he did not regard them or other users of cannabis as criminals.
But he said that his party would not be calling for decriminalisation in its general election manifesto, as the Liberal Democrats would want to take advice from an expert Royal Commission before changing the law.
Asked on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme if he thought cannabis should be decriminalised, Mr Kennedy said: "Yes. I would have a Royal Commission, which would advise on that, but all the available evidence from authoritative bodies, chief constables, ex-judges and so on is that we are heading in that direction.
"I am thoroughly persuaded that where cannabis is concerned, it should be a prescribable drug for people, for example, who suffer from multiple sclerosis.
"At the least, (recreational cannabis use) should be a civil offence." Asked why he would not call for decriminalisation in his manifesto, Mr Kennedy said: "It would be inconsistent for me and the Liberal Democrats to be arguing for a Royal Commission and then to prejudge it.
"You asked me for a personal opinion and I gave you a personal opinion, but I would like to see an authoritative all-party, non-party look at the issue, rather than the hysterics of the past few days.
"If you are in politics and you set people up to examine an issue and report back, then you pay attention to what they say."
He said Britain had been damaged by politicians' terror of even raising the issue of decriminalisation, and that Westminster was out of step with public opinion on cannabis.
"Ann Widdecombe has done a public service in the last few days, because she has shown how far attitudes are changing in this country." Mr Kennedy denied that liberalisation of the law on cannabis would lead to a "slippery slope" towards legalisation of harder drugs.
"It seems to me that, as a society, we are not focusing enough on these ideas in terms of solvents, narcotics or whatever it may be, that really are causing the major disruption and social misery. I don't think cannabis is in that category."
Police time would be better spent dealing with the consequences of alcohol,
which caused violence and criminal damage on a far greater scale than cannabis,