More MS news articles for Oct 2001

Cannabis laws eased in drug policy shakeup

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,579887,00.html

Wednesday October 24, 2001
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
The Guardian

Britain's 30-year-old cannabis laws, the most stringent in Europe, are to be relaxed by next spring under plans announced yesterday by the home secretary, David Blunkett.
Cannabis - which is tried by more than 40% of British schoolchildren - is to be downgraded from a class B to a class C drug. The police will lose the power to arrest the 90,000 people a year who are currently charged with possession offences.

Alongside the reform of the 1971 cannabis laws, Mr Blunkett announced a new emphasis on reducing the harm caused by hard drugs, including guidance encouraging doctors to prescribe heroin as part of a programme to get more hardcore addicts into treatment and away from dealers.

The home secretary also gave his firmest indication yet that he will license the medical use of cannabis to treat multiple sclerosis and other illnesses when research trials, which are currently in their third phase, are completed.

But the shake-up of the drug laws, designed to win back credibility with the young, stops short of the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis. Mr Blunkett's decision to reclassify it as a class C drug means that it remains illegal but the maximum penalties of two years for possession and five years for possession with intent to supply will be much lower than the current penalties of five and 14 years.

The police will no longer have the power to arrest anyone in the street for cannabis possession and prosecutions will be carried out by court summons. This is likely to mean that prosecution will prove the exception rather than the rule for simple possession.

The reforms are expected to come into effect in the spring, after they have been considered by the advisory council on the misuse of drugs. This group of experts first recommended the change as long ago as 1981. Ministers will implement the change by an order in council after a debate in parliament.

It is also in line with the recommendation of the Police Foundation inquiry into drugs, which was dismissed by ministers when it was published last year. But Mr Blunkett yesterday rejected the inquiry's recommendations to downgrade ecstasy and LSD from their class A status.

The home secretary told MPs yesterday that the changes would not detract from the simple message that all drugs were harmful but it would make a clearer distinction between cannabis and class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

"Cannabis would remain a controlled drug and using it a criminal offence," he said. "Above all, it would make sense to both those policing the system and those providing education and advice to prevent young people falling into addiction.

"In spite of focusing on hard drugs, the majority of police time is currently spent on handling cannabis offences. It is time for an honest and commonsense approach focusing effectively on drugs that cause the most harm."

Mr Blunkett said the six-month experiment in Brixton under which the police did not charge those found with cannabis was proving a success, with the two to three hours usually spent on processing such convictions in the past now spent targeting more serious crimes.

Suspicion of cannabis possession will no longer be grounds for police stop and search, a Home Office spokesman said. Offenders could be dealt with on the spot with an informal warning, cautioned or reported for summons.

Chris Sanders of the Cannabis Coalition welcomed the move to reclassify cannabis, describing it as a small step to progress, and Paul Flynn, the Labour MP who has campaigned for legalisation, called it the most important announcement in 30 years of drug policy. "We have the harshest drug policies in Europe," he said. "This is the first time we have seen a government prepared to say they are not working."

The police also welcomed the change. Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan police commissioner, said: "Reclassification could reduce the time spent by officers dealing with such offenders, enabling them to concentrate on tackling more serious crimes such as street robbery which has increased in London in recent months."

But the former shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, who caused embarrassment for the Tory party when she proposed much tougher cannabis laws, said that the changes were in danger of becoming a "dealers' charter" as they could escape prosecution by claiming a large amount in their possession was for their personal use.
 

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001